As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for hearings on William Barr’s nomination for attorney general, one person will loom large in the room: special counsel Robert Mueller.
Several Senate Democrats on the committee plan to grill Barr at his confirmation hearing next week on his views on Mueller’s Russia investigation, focusing on a controversial memo Barr wrote last year to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In that memo, Barr criticized Mueller’s investigation into possible obstruction of justice as “fatally misconceived.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday said Barr should be disqualified from leading the DOJ in part because of the memo.
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“The memorandum is deeply worrisome because in effect he says the president is above the law... that’s incorrect as a matter of law but certainly for an attorney general to have that position is deeply wrong,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who said he’ll ask Barr if he’ll stop political interference into the special counsel’s probe.
He added that Barr should recuse himself from overseeing the investigation if he can’t provide an “ironclad” commitment to protecting Mueller and declines to disavow statements he made in the memo.
Barr’s nomination battle comes at a key moment in Donald Trump’s presidency, with the Justice Department in transition and Mueller’s probe entering its 20th month. The investigation has netted seven guilty pleas as well as secured a conviction of the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Trump has repeatedly blasted the Mueller investigation, deeming it a “witch hunt,” and has taken to Twitter dozens of times to criticize the investigation and the investigators involved in it. A bipartisan group of senators are also reintroducing a bill to protect Mueller, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said such a bill isn’t needed and has refused to bring it up for a floor vote.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another Judiciary committee member, also agreed that the Mueller investigation will be front and center and called it “troublesome” that Barr volunteered his opinion on Mueller’s authority. “I’m sure he’ll deny any culpability and assure me that he’s going to be a straight arrow but I come to it with a degree of skepticism,” he said.
Democrats say that the departure of Rosenstein, who is reportedly leaving the Justice Department after a new attorney general is confirmed, also raises the stakes for choosing the next attorney general. While Democrats can’t block Barr’s nomination by themselves, they may succeed in getting him to commit to protecting the Mueller investigation under oath.
“I would have liked [Rosenstein]… to be the attorney general,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) adding that she wants to hear from Barr “that the Attorney General’s office is an independent entity.”
Trump nominated Barr for attorney general in December. If confirmed, he would replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump resented after he recused himself from the Russia investigation. Barr also served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.
Despite the focus on the Mueller investigation, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee don’t appear to have a completely uniform strategy for how to approach the nomination hearing. When asked about the Democratic strategy, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he had “no idea” and would focus his attention on meeting with Barr and asking his own questions. Blumenthal seemed to agree.
“I have my questions and my strategy for asking those questions. I don’t think there’s a Democratic strategy,” he said.
Senate Republicans are bracing for Barr’s hearing to become confrontational, particularly given the contentious nature of the committee’s high-profile hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has no doubt that Democrats will try to block Barr’s confirmation in no small part because Democratic senators with 2020 aspirations may use the hearing to stand out.
“Senate Democrats especially on the Judiciary Committee have demonstrated that they will treat almost anything like a political circus, and you’ve got right now it seems like half of the Judiciary Committee on the Democratic side running for president so I fully expect more ‘Spartacus’ moments in the next two years,” said Cruz, referencing Sen. Cory Booker’s performance during the Kavanaugh hearings.
Despite potential Democratic attacks, Senate Republicans don’t appear concerned about Barr’s memo to Rosenstein and remain confident that he will be confirmed, particularly given that they expanded their majority during the midterm election. Only 50 votes are needed to confirm a nominee and so Republicans don’t need any Democratic votes.
Barr met Wednesday with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and former Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Graham said that during their meeting, Barr reassured him of his respect for Mueller.
“He said ‘I’ve known Bob Mueller for decades,’ their wives are like best friends,” Graham said, adding that Barr believes Mueller is “professional, will be fair to the president, fair to the country and...is going to make sure that Bob Mueller can finish his job.”
Graham also expressed support for bringing up the Mueller protection bill in his committee if the probe is still going on next month.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is also on the Judiciary Committee, doesn’t see Barr’s memo to Rosenstein on the Mueller investigation as disqualifying and noted in an interview that Barr wrote the memo as a private citizen.
Not all Republicans are on board yet with Barr’s nomination. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) reiterated his concern Wednesday with Barr’s view of civil liberties. “I believe there are some statements of his saying the Patriot Act didn’t go far enough and should have gone farther,” Paul said.
James Arkin contributed to this report.