7 Big Takeaways From William Barr’s AG Confirmation Hearing
Fred Lucas /
William Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee he wouldn’t be intimidated by anyone, including President Donald Trump, who nominated him to serve as attorney general.
“I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong, and I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong. By anybody. Whether it be editorial boards, or Congress, or the president,” Barr said Tuesday in response to questions by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
“I’m going to do what I think is right,” he said.
Barr testified all day before the Senate committee, talking about issues ranging from abortion and the First Amendment to Hillary Clinton and the controversial Uranium One deal.
Here are seven big takeaways from the first of two days of confirmation hearings for Barr.
1. ‘You’re Crazy’: On Independence
Much of the questioning from senators revolved around special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and Moscow’s potential ties to the Trump campaign.
Barr’s general assertion of independence, however, could affect more issues if he is confirmed, as expected.
Having served already as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from November 1991 through January 1993 allows him to be more independent, Barr said.
“Over the years, a lot of people—some politicians—have called me up saying, ‘You know, I think I’m going for the attorney general position in this administration,’” Barr told senators.
Barr continued: “And I say, ‘You’re crazy, because if you view yourself as having a political future down the road, don’t take the job. If you take this job, you have to be ready to make decisions and spend all your political capital, and have no future because you have to have that freedom of action.’”
At age 68, Barr said, career since his prior service sets him apart as ready to lead the Justice Department again.
“I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences, in the sense that I can truly be independent,” Barr said.
Trump ousted his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after expressing frustrations for months that Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe and didn’t prevent or rein it in.
“President Trump has sought no assurances, promises, or commitments from me of any kind, either expressed or implied, and I have not given him any, other than that I would run the department with professionalism and integrity,” Barr said. “My allegiance will be to the rule of law, the Constitution, and the American people.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Barr: “Do you believe Attorney General Sessions had a conflict because he worked on the Trump campaign?”
“I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself,” Barr replied.
Democratic lawmakers threw hypothetical questions his way, and in most cases Barr answered.
The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, asked: “If the president orders the attorney general to halt a criminal investigation for personal reasons, would that be prohibited?”
Barr was not ambiguous.
“I think it would be a breach of the president’s duties to faithfully execute the law,” Barr said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked: “Do you believe a president could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him?”
Barr asserted, “No. That would be a crime.”
Trump’s nominee added: “If a president attempts to intervene in a matter that he has a stake in to protect himself, that should first be looked at as a breach of his constitutional duties.”
2. No ‘Witch Hunt’ by Mueller
Barr put some distance between himself and the president on one major issue—Mueller’s investigation. Trump repeatedly has called the basis of the Russia probe a “hoax” and the probe itself a “witch hunt.”
Graham: “Do you believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt against anybody?”
Barr: “I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt. … On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work.”
At one point, Barr said he and his wife are “good friends” with Mueller and his wife.
Graham and Feinstein both asked whether Mueller’s final report will be made available to the public.
“I am going to make as much information available as I can, consistent with the rules and regulations that are part of the special counsel regulations,” Barr said.
In response to a question from Leahy about whether the White House could “correct” the report before its public release, Barr said, “That will not happen.”
Feinstein: “Have you discussed the Mueller investigation with the president or anyone else in the White House?”
Barr: “I discussed the Mueller investigation, but not in any particular substance.”
Feinstein: “Will you commit to ensuring that special counsel Mueller is not terminated without good cause consistent with department regulations?”
However, the nominee for attorney general stressed to committee Democrats that he would not pledge to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation or to follow the recommendations of the Justice Department’s career ethics officials if they say he should recuse himself.
“I am not going to surrender the responsibilities I have,” Barr said, adding:
You would not like it if I made some pledge to the president of the United States that I was going to exercise my responsibilities in a particular way, and I’m not going to make a pledge to anyone on this committee.
Senators also raised Barr’s unsolicited June 2018 memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel and oversaw his Russia probe after Sessions recused himself.
Barr’s memo questioned Mueller’s investigation of a specific instance of alleged obstruction of justice.
The special counsel reportedly was examining Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director in May 2017 and his telling Comey earlier that he hoped the FBI director wouldn’t pursue a case against Michael Flynn, his short-lived national security adviser.
Barr explained that his memo was “narrow, explaining my thinking on a specific obstruction of justice theory under a single statute that I thought the special counsel might be considering.”
“The memo did not address or in any other way question the special counsel’s core investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the election,” Barr said.
Graham asked about a Jan. 11 report in The New York Times that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation after Comey’s firing to determine whether Trump was an agent of the Russian government.
“Would you promise me and this committee to look into this and tell us whether or not it was opened?” Graham asked.
Barr said he would do so.
Graham followed up by talking about text messages exchanged between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page during the 2016 race for president.
Barr said he would “look into what happened with 2016” and that he was “shocked” by texts between Strzok and Page in which they talked about working to prevent Trump from getting elected and an “insurance policy” in case he was elected.
3. Border Security and a Barrier
Senators also addressed the ongoing partial shutdown of the government, affecting 25 percent of federal agencies, over the lack of funding sought by Trump for a border wall.
Barr voiced support for a physical barrier along the southern border, which is opposed by Democrats and championed by Trump.
“It is a critical part of border security that we need to have barriers on the border,” Barr said. “We need a barrier system on the border to get control.”
He said he wants an end to the partial government shutdown.
“I would like to see a deal reached whereby Congress recognizes that it’s imperative to have border security, and that part of that border security is barriers.”
On the issue of Trump’s unilaterally building a wall, possibly after declaring a national emergency, Barr was noncommittal.
“There are monies that the president may have power to shift because of statutory authority,” he said.
4. First Amendment and Avoiding Violence
Barr fielded questions about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.
The Justice Department is at the end of a process of reviewing its policy toward subpoenaing information from the news media, a senior administration official confirmed to The Daily Signal.
That review pertains to how much advance notice would be provided to a news organization before the government pursued information.
The Hill’s John Solomon first reported Monday that the Justice Department is considering the policy, citing an unnamed source.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noting that her father was a reporter, asked: “Will the Justice Department jail journalists for doing their jobs?”
Barr did not discuss specifics of the review.
“I can conceive of places where, as a last resort and a news organization has run through a red flag, there could be a situation as to whether someone could be held in contempt,” Barr said of reporters.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked first about free speech amid controversies over suppression of free speech on college campuses across the country. Sessions pointedly spoke out against such incidents.
“Free speech is at the core of our system because we believe in democratic process and power shifting through elections,” Barr said.
He added that free speech prevents disputes from being settled by other means.
“Another important role of free speech is allowing people to disagree without resorting to violence,” Barr said. “When speech is suppressed, pressure can build up and result in violence.”
Cruz followed up by asking about religious freedom, the subject of some recent Supreme Court cases.
“The framers believed our system only works if people are in a position to control themselves. Part of that self-control comes from religious values,” Barr said.
“I believe in the separation of church and state, but I am sometimes concerned that we not use governmental power to suppress the freedoms of traditional religious communities in our country.”
5. Roe v. Wade: ‘Would You Defend It?’
During his Senate confirmation hearing in 1991, Barr said he opposed the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 that legalized abortion across the nation, taking the issue away from the states.
At the time, Democrats such as then-Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., who went on to become vice president, praised Barr for his honesty on the issue.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Tuesday: “You said you believe Roe v. Wade should be overruled. Do you still believe it?
Barr: “I said in 1991 [that] as an original matter it was wrongly decided.”
“I don’t see it” being overturned, he added, because recent confirmed justices to the high court made it clear that the decision was established precedent.
Blumenthal asked: “Would you defend it if challenged?”
Barr wasn’t entirely clear in his response.
“Would I defend Roe v. Wade? Usually the way this would come up would be a state regulation,” he said. “I would hope the solicitor general would make whatever arguments are necessary to address that.”
Abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, and NARAL Pro-Choice America sent letters to the committee opposing Barr’s nomination.
6. On ‘Pursuing’ Uranium One
Leahy brought up the Uranium One scandal, which, The New York Times reported in 2017, Barr thought the Justice Department should investigate.
“Just about everybody has debunked the Uranium One controversy. I think probably the nail in the coffin was President Trump’s biggest supporter, Fox News, debunked it. Am I missing something here?” Leahy asked.
The Times, in 2017, quoted the nominee as saying: “Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation. To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility.”
“Barr said he sees more basis for investigating the uranium deal than any supposed collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia,” the Times reported.
Barr, in response to Leahy, challenged the reporting by the Times. He also said that he understood that U.S. Attorney John Huber, of Utah, is investigating the matter as part of a larger review of Justice Department conduct.
“You’ll notice there were no quotes around that,” Barr said of the Times paraphrase, adding:
My recollection of that, I think it was relating to a letter and the appointment of Huber in Utah to look into a number of things. The point I was trying to make there was that whatever the standard is for launching an investigation, it should be dealt with evenhandedly. Whatever that trigger is should be applied to all. I have no knowledge of the Uranium One [deal]. I didn’t particularly think that was something that should be pursued aggressively.
The mining company Uranium One contributed $2.4 million to the Clinton Foundation during Clinton’s four-year tenure as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, the Times reported in 2015.
Figures associated with Uranium One also paid $500,000 to former President Bill Clinton to speak in Moscow. In a 2010 deal approved by a government committee including Hillary Clinton and eight other members of Obama’s Cabinet, a Kremlin-connected entity obtained 20 percent of America’s uranium production by acquiring Uranium One from a Canadian company.
7. Enforcing Prison Reform
During his first tenure as attorney general, Barr supported strict mandatory sentencing and since that time has opposed some proposals for criminal justice reform.
The American Civil Liberties Union cited this record in opposing his nomination.
Trump recently signed prison reform legislation, passed on a bipartisan basis, known as the First Step Act.
The new law allows inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, if they complete certain education and training programs, to earn credits toward serving more of their sentences in supervision outside prison, in a halfway house, or in home confinement.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, asked Barr whether he would support implementation of the law, despite his past advocacy.
“Even though you’ve opposed criminal justice reform in the past, will you commit to implementing the First Step Act?” Grassley asked.
Barr said he would, but stressed that circumstances at the time of his past policy view were not comparable to the present.
“In 1992, when I was attorney general, violent crime rates were the highest in American history,” Barr said. “The sentences were extremely short. Typically, in many states, the time served for rape was three years, for murder, the time served was seven years.”
The system had broken down. I think through a series of administrations—Reagan, Bush, Clinton—the laws were changed, and we targeted chronic violent offenders—especially those using guns. And I think the reason the crime rate is much lower today is because of those policies.
I don’t think comparing the policies that were in effect in 1992 to the situation now is really fair. And I’ve said, right now, we have greater regularity in sentencing. There’s broader recognition that chronic violent offenders should be incarcerated for significant periods of time to keep them off the streets. And I think the time was right to take stock and make changes to our penal system based on current experience. I have no problem with the approach of reforming the sentencing structure. And I will faithfully enforce that law.