President Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, William Barr, on Tuesday begins two days of confirmation hearings that are expected to delve into Barr’s criticism of the special counsel investigation and his expansive views of executive power.
Barr, who served as attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush, has drawn scrutiny in recent weeks for a memo he wrote last year criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller for examining whether Trump tried to obstruct the investigation.
In the 19-page memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the investigation, Barr opined that Mueller’s probe of Trump for asking then-FBI director James Comey to “let … go” of a separate investigation and then firing him was “fatally misconceived” and “grossly irresponsible.”
The memo, written on June 8, came to light last month after Trump nominated Barr, 68, to succeed then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, whom he ousted over his recusal from oversight of the Russia investigation. Alarmed that Barr, a conservative Republican lawyer, might put limits on the investigation, Democrats have vowed to make the memo a key element of Barr’s nomination hearing.
Seeking to mollify those concerns, Barr released his written testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, arguing that the memo was “narrow in scope” and did not address the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and other “potential obstruction-of-justice theories.”
In his testimony, Barr will say that he’ll allow the special counsel to complete his investigation without any interference.
“I believe it is in the best interest of everyone — the President, Congress, and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the Special Counsel to complete his work,” Barr will say. “The country needs a credible resolution of these issues.”
Despite the seemingly reassuring tone of the statement, Democrats signaled they plan to grill Barr on the Mueller investigation as well as a range of other issues.
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, a prominent member of the Senate judiciary panel, tweeted after the release of Barr’s statement that despite the attorney general nominee’s avowed support for the Mueller investigation, “serious questions remain.”
Question of authority
One question Barr left unanswered in his statement but will likely feature prominently during the confirmation hearing: Does Barr think the president has the legal authority to ask the attorney general to shut down the investigation? It is an old legal question that has taken on real-world significance in the midst of the Russia investigation.
William Yeomans, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Justice and a lecturer in law at Columbia University, said that Barr — a strong proponent of the “unitary executive” — takes the view that the president has the authority to shut down any criminal investigation.
“What he says in his statement is, to the extent that the decisions are his, he’ll support the completion of the Mueller investigation but he doesn’t rebut the notion that the president could tell him to shut down the investigation,” Yeomans said. “The Senate needs to ask him in some detail about how he’d react to various instructions from the president: to shut down the investigation, or curtail certain investigative steps.”
Oversight of Russia investigation
If confirmed, Barr will take over oversight of the Russia investigation from Rosenstein, who has indicated to associates in recent weeks that he’ll leave the Justice Department after a new attorney general is confirmed.
Yeomans said that Rosenstein has protected the Mueller investigation from “political interference” and he added that there is “an inherent problem in having this president select the person who’s going to oversee the investigation into this president.”
Friends and supporters of Barr described him as a straight-shooting lawyer who will not bend to Trump’s wishes.
“Mr. Barr is a very independent fellow who has his own view of what’s right and wrong, and I’m sure he’ll execute that,” said Andrew McBride, a longtime Barr friend and a partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie in Washington.
McBride dismissed the notion that Barr is an “anti-Mueller zealot” out to upend the Russia investigation.
“The memo he wrote is about one part of the Mueller investigation and it’s a constitutional analysis,” he said. “It just says Mr. Barr believes in this one area the president had the authority to fire Mr. Comey and that it was not obstruction of justice. But it doesn’t comment on the Russian collusion aspect of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.”
McBride said Barr respects the uniquely American role of the attorney general.
“Bill has always thought there were two roles for the attorney general: one is as a cabinet officer who is loyal to the president, but one is as an independent law enforcement officer,” McBride said.