William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, January 15, for what is likely to be a contentious hearing over his confirmation to head the Department of Justice.
Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, if confirmed will replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and current acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. His nomination has been a controversial one, especially in light of the Russia investigation and concerns over the fate of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
Barr in June sent a 19-page private memo to the Justice Department as a private citizen in which he criticized the Mueller investigation for “proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws” that could have “grave consequences” for the executive branch.
Expect to hear a lot about the Mueller investigation
His prepared remarks ahead of the hearing released on Monday show that Barr will try to quell concerns that he might somehow impede Mueller’s probe during his confirmation hearing.
Barr will tell senators that he believes that it is “vitally important” Mueller be able to complete his investigation say he has the “utmost respect” for Mueller. He will also say that he believes it is important that Congress and the public be informed of the results of the probe and pledge “as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.”
“I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work,” he will say.
Barr will also address the memo and say that it did not question the special counsel’s core investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump often complained that Sessions did not do enough to protect him from the Russia investigation, and former FBI Director James Comey alleges that Trump told him he expected loyalty in a private conversation. Barr on Tuesday will also tell senators he hasn’t made any promises to Trump and that the president “sought no assurances, promises, or commitments from me of any kind, either expressed or implied.”
Tensions are perhaps especially high around the Russia investigation at the moment amid a new report from the New York Times saying that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was compromised by Russia in May 2017 and a Washington Post report that Trump has kept details of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin from advisers.
Trump has consistently batted down any suggestions he has suspicious ties to Russia, telling reporters on Monday that he “never worked for Russia.” He has for months railed against the Mueller investigation and claimed it is stacked against him.
Criminal justice reform and immigration will likely also be on the agenda
Beyond the Mueller probe, lawmakers are likely to bring up other matters during their questioning of Barr, including immigration and criminal justice reform.
As Vox’s German Lopez explained, criminal justice reform advocates have expressed concern about Barr’s record on the matter, as he was one of the architects of federal policies supporting the war on drugs and leading to mass incarceration. Under Bush as deputy attorney general and attorney general, he pushed for more punitive criminal justice policies and supported a department book that made the case for more incarceration. An op-ed he and two other former attorney generals in November indicates his hardline approach to criminal justice has not changed.
He is also an immigration hawk, and his aggressive “law and order” agenda included a focus on immigration in the 1990s. As Vox’s Dara Lind recently noted, that aligns with Trump’s agenda today:
His hawkishness surprised a lot of observers at the time, but it fits right in with the Trump administration — and, specifically, with a Justice Department that (thanks to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions) has been the nerve center for incubating new ideas in immigration crackdowns.
The DOJ Barr is taking over isn’t the same one he led in 1992 — he no longer has control of the Immigration and Naturalization Service — and the realities of immigration are completely different as well. And some of Barr’s rhetoric about immigration from that time — like blaming it in part for the LA riots of 1992 after the acquittal of officers involved in the beating of Rodney King — sounds about as racist as some of the things Trump has said about immigrant rapists and murderers.
Barr’s confirmation hearing is sure to be contentious. Democrats have a lot of questions about how he’ll act as the nation’s top law enforcement official. Moreover, many of the Judiciary Committee’s Democrats are widely considered to be potential 2020 presidential contenders, meaning they’ll be looking to make headlines — Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) are all on the committee.
Tensions already bubbled up ahead of the confirmation last week when some Democrats, including Klobuchar, said that Barr was turning down meeting requests with them ahead of the hearing. After their complaints, the Justice Department was able to set up more meetings.