Senate Democrats remain largely skeptical of William Barr for attorney general after he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, underscoring the partisan fight over his nomination won’t be ending any time soon.
Much of their resistance centers on lingering uncertainty on how Barr would handle special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign. Barr this week pledged that he wouldn’t interfere with Mueller’s probe and vowed to be as transparent under the law as possible.
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But for many Senate Democrats on the committee, it wasn’t enough.
“His top lines about the Mueller investigation were all terrific, really respects Mueller, not a witch hunt, going to make it as transparent as possible not going to interfere, all great stuff,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) “Once you get into the weeds, it got a lot more problematic.”
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has already said he will oppose Barr’s nomination. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), said that she remains troubled over Barr’s statement that he’d reject ethics officials’ guidance on recusing from the Mueller probe if he disagreed with their advice.
“I have real concerns about his ability to follow the advice of the career people in terms of any issue that might arise related to the Mueller investigation,” Harris said in an interview after Barr’s confirmation hearing.
Barr doesn’t need Democratic votes to get confirmed by the Senate — he only needs a simple majority. But the lack of Democratic support for his nomination is in stark contrast to the unanimous vote he got in being confirmed as attorney general during President George H.W. Bush’s administration.
Barr’s nomination hearing was dominated by questions about Mueller’s investigation, which the president has repeatedly derided as a “witch hunt.” During the hearing, Barr disagreed with that characterization but said he could understand the president’s perspective. Some senators say his assurances weren’t convincing.
“I think he was speaking to an audience of one: the president of the United States,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii.).
Schumer told reporters after he met with Barr Wednesday that he was dissatisfied with the nominee’s responses on Mueller’s investigation. Specifically, Schumer was wary of Barr’s commitment to release the special counsel’s findings. He also said Barr wouldn’t pledge to not limit witnesses in the investigation.
“Despite the fact that there were some nice words in the hearing, we do not have the kind of strong and clear commitments to the report being issued and there being no interference in the investigation that are needed — particularly now with President Trump treating the Justice Department as he has,” Schumer said.
Trump had a fractious relationship with his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after Sessions recused himself from the Mueller investigation. As the country’s top law enforcement official, Barr would oversee the special counsel’s work.
Senate Judiciary ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was more satisfied than others with Barr’s answers on Mueller, but said Wednesday that her vote for Barr would depend on a commitment that the Mueller report be made public.
“His answers were good, he clearly understands the need for independence and the importance of protecting the department as well as Mr. Mueller from political interference,” Feinstein said. But she added Barr’s “answers on providing a report to Congress at the end of the special counsel investigation were confusing.” Feinstein said she plans to follow up with Barr in writing.
But Democrats took issue with other aspects of Barr’s testimony, including his statements on immigration and position on jailing journalists.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that Barr’s hearing left a lot of “unanswered questions,” adding that he worried about Barr’s position on immigration issues. During his confirmation hearing, Barr agreed with Trump’s calls for more barriers at the southern border and said that sanctuary cities encouraged “illegal aliens” to come in. He also described the border as a “major avenue” for drugs entering the United States.
Durbin said that Barr’s responses on immigration “followed the Trump line and ignored in many cases the reality.”
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, a moderate Democrat who does not sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed a similar sentiment, saying he was uneasy with Barr’s statements on drugs coming into the United States.
“On the drugs coming through — they come through the ports and for him not to know that as the No. 1 law enforcement official in the country is disturbing,” Tester said.
And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) voiced concern about Barr’s response when she asked whether the Justice Department would [she used the word will] jail reporters for doing their jobs. Barr said that he “could conceive of situations where as a last resort … there could be a situation where someone would be held in contempt” if the reporting would harm the country. Klobuchar noted later in an interview that there was a “long pause before deciding whether he would put you in jail.”
Despite frustration among Democrats about Barr’s answers on Mueller, he appears to have strong support from Senate Republicans. Durbin said in an interview that his Republican colleagues told him after the hearing “you’re not going to get anybody better than this.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) seems to agree. After the first day of the hearing ended Tuesday, Graham said he hoped that Barr would pick up some Democratic votes. Graham noted that he voted for President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominees Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, not because he agreed with them but because they were qualified.
“I hope they will do what I did,” Graham said. “I think Mr. Barr is qualified by any reasonable standard and if he’s not qualified I don’t know who they’re ever going to pick.”