Former Attorney General William Barr took questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for hours Tuesday as he sought to win confirmation to his old job amid President Donald Trump's ongoing onslaught against the Justice Department and the special counsel investigation being led by Robert Mueller.
Republicans on the committee largely promoted Barr's long resume and service to the country. Democrats sought to cover every possible eventuality in regard to the possibility of Trump seeking to use the attorney general to either intervene or unduly influence the special counsel probe. Barr stayed low-key throughout, his gravelly voice rarely rising above a conversational tone as he repeatedly offered his confidence in Mueller, the investigation and the need for it to run its natural course.
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It was a good day for Barr and for a Trump administration hoping to get him confirmed as AG. It was a less good day for Trump himself, due to Barr's unwavering support for the special counsel. Here are the big takeaways from the hearing.
1. Barr was crystal clear in his support for Mueller
From the jump, Democrats wanted to get Barr on the record about the Mueller probe, whether he believed it was misguided, whether it had gone on too long and if he would ever consider ending the probe for any reason whatsoever. And time after time, Barr was unequivocal.
"I don't believe Mr. Mueller to be involved in a witch hunt," Barr said at one point. Relating what he told Trump about Mueller when the latter was appointed as special counsel, Barr recounted he told the President that the former FBI director is "is a straight shooter and should be treated as such." Asked by Delaware Sen. Chris Coons (D) whether he would reject an order from Trump to fire Mueller without what he considered good cause, Barr said he would do so -- and resign his post. (He also said it was "unimaginable" to him that Mueller would do something that would trigger his legal removal.) He made clear he would not allow any editing by the President of the final report put forward by the special counsel.
The cherry on top? Barr repeatedly referred to Mueller as "Bob" -- a sign of their long friendship. Barr said he told Trump in June 2017 that "I knew Bob Mueller and how the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this is all over, and so forth."
2. Barr doesn't really care what people think of how he would do the job
One of Barr's strongest moment was when, under questioning from Democrats, he insisted he would not be bullied by Trump or anyone else.
"One of the reasons I ultimately decided that I would accept this position if it was offered to me was because I feel that I'm in a position to be independent," Barr said. "If you view yourself as having a political future, don't take the job, because if you take this job, you have to be ready to make decisions and spill all your political capital and have no future, because you have to have that freedom of action. And I feel 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."
3. Barr was critical of James Comey -- but only to a point
Unlike Trump, who has bashed Comey, the former FBI director who he fired in the spring of 2017, as a liar and a leaker, Barr offered a much more nuanced take. "I think Jim Comey is, as I've said, an extremely gifted man who has served the country with distinction in many roles," Barr said. "But I thought that to the extent that he actually announced a decision, was wrong, and the other thing is, if you're not going to indict someone, then you don't stand up there and unload negative information about the person."
Rather than attack Comey personally, Barr noted that the former FBI director's largest failure was "disregarding the normal procedures and established practices" for how the Justice Department handles investigations of that sort.
4. Barr agreed with Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe ...
In Trump's mind, the whole Russia cloud that continues to linger over his White House is the direct result of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to recuse himself from oversight of the investigation in 2017. Sessions said he did so because, as a political advocate for Trump in the 2016 election, he wanted to ensure there was absolutely no appearance of conflict or bias.
Contra Trump, Barr told the Judiciary Committee that "I'm not sure of all the facts but I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself." Added Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), an on-again, off-again Trump ally: "I agree. I think he did the right thing to recuse himself."
5. ... but won't recuse himself from the probe.
Some liberal senators -- California Sen. Kamala Harris and Hawaii's Mazie Hirono -- suggested both before and during the hearing that, if confirmed as AG, Barr should recuse himself from the Russia probe due to a memo he wrote to the Justice Department last year in which he argued that Mueller should not be permitted to interview the President over his decision to fire Comey.
Barr rejected the recusal idea and insisted that his 18-page memo was "on a very particular statute and theory" and was not informed by any factual knowledge of the inner workings of the Mueller probe. He also rejected the idea that he had written the memo -- and made sure it got in front of the right people within the administration as a tryout of sorts for the attorney general job. "That's ludicrous," said Barr of that charge. "If I wanted the job and was going after the job, there are many more direct ways of me bringing myself to the President's attention than writing an 18-page legal memorandum."
6. Barr thinks Russia is a threat
While acknowledging he is no foreign policy expert, Barr broke with Trump on his willingness to put the blame for election interference in the 2016 election on Russia. He added: "I think the Russians are a potential rival of our country. Of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Barr said: "I think he wants to weaken the American alliances in Europe and he also wants to become more of a player in the Middle East."
7. Cory Booker stood out among 2020 aspirants
These moments -- the national press, donors and activists all watching -- can be opportunities or pitfalls for senators with their eye on running against Trump in 2020. Of that small group -- Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker -- Booker stood out to me. He pressed Barr on past comments the latter had made about incarceration, and the role that race plays in who gets imprisoned and for how long. Booker, who has in the past seemed to be trying to make a moment happen in just these same circumstances, was forceful and knowledgeable without being blindly partisan. He listened to Barr, pointed out when more recent studies countered Barr's conclusions about incarceration in the early 1990s and pushed for a broader conversation between the two of them in private.
It was what we should expect from public officials but not something we always get -- especially from people, like Booker, who are expected to run for president.
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