WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear Tuesday from William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to become attorney general. Here are seven things to watch for at the hearing:
1. Mueller investigation
Barr wrote a memo in June about Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller pursuing a possible obstruction of justice charge against Trump, arguing the probe was “fatally misconceived.”
Senate Democrats plan to press Barr on whether he will support the Mueller probe.
“I want to make sure that (Barr) is not going to take the position that he should just protect Trump at all costs,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told USA TODAY. “I want to hear from him that the attorney general’s office is an independent entity.”
Barr said in a copy of his testimony released Monday that Mueller should be allowed to complete his work. Barr said the memo was written about a narrow obstruction-of-justice statute rather than about the special counsel’s authority more broadly.
“I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decision,” Barr said.
More: President Trump to nominate former Attorney General William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions
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2. Trump and Russia
The FBI began not just a criminal investigation before Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, but a counterintelligence probe, according to a report in The New York Times.
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said the report suggests there may have been more concerns that sparked the Mueller investigation than were publicly known at the time. Coons told reporters Monday he will focus during on whether Barr “will stand up for the rule of law and the appropriate independence of the Department of Justice.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt” and denied colluding with Russia to win the election.
“I never worked for Russia,” Trump said Monday. “Not only did I never work for Russia, I think it’s a disgrace that you even asked that question because it’s a whole big, fat hoax.”
3. Executive power
Barr, who was attorney general from November 1991 to January 1993 and earlier served as deputy attorney general and headed the Office of Legal Counsel, holds an expansive view of the president’s executive power.
In the legal counsel job, Barr wrote opinions that justified the FBI arresting fugitives overseas and the invasion of Panama and arrest of dictator Manuel Noriega. As deputy attorney general, Barr told former President George H.W. Bush he had the authority to attack Iraq without congressional approval.
Barr could face an early test of executive authority if he is confirmed because Trump has threatened to proclaim a national emergency to shift funding from other departments to build the wall along the southern border.
“I think it’s important to know what kind of judgment the attorney general nominee might provide for the president on the scope of his power,” Coons said.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said he was sure Barr would be asked “about his opinion about the relationship between Justice and the other parts of the executive branch, including but not limited to the office of the presidency.”
4. Partisan clashes
The hearing comes amid significant turnover in Trump’s Cabinet, with acting secretaries at the Justice, Defense, Interior departments, along with White House chief of staff and head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Justice Department has a role in developing administration policy over a variety of hot-button issues, including immigration and voting rights.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said several Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are running for president and “have demonstrated that they will treat almost anything like a political circus.” Cruz himself is a former 2016 presidential candidate.
Coons said tensions linger from the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which he called “one of the most divisive and charged hearings” during his eight years in the Senate. But Barr helped himself by releasing a statement that answered questions and addressed concerns, Coons said.
“It is my hope that everyone will conduct themselves in appropriate, professional ways,” Coons said.
5. Criminal justice policy
Lawmakers are expected to press Barr on a criminal-justice overhaul, which in part would give judges more discretion in sentencing. His predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had been an advocate of harsh punishment, directing prosecutors to seek the toughest charges possible.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she wants to ask about department initiatives such as criminal-justice overhaul, immigration, human trafficking and opioids.
In his prepared testimony, Barr said the crime rate has fallen substantially since he last last served as attorney general in 1992, when his priority was to target violent offenders and gangs. Barr said the First Step Act, the name for the overhaul legislation, recognizes the progress made and he said he would diligently implement it.
“I believe we must keep up the pressure on chronic, violent criminals,” Barr said. “We cannot allow the progress we have made to be reversed.”
Barr will testify during a partial shutdown of the federal government – at more than three weeks, the longest in history. Trump and congressional Democrats are at a stalemate over immigration policy, with the president insisting on $5.7 billion for construction of a wall along the southern border.
Barr said in his prepared testimony that immigration has been a huge benefit, but that the country couldn’t accommodate many millions of people who would come from poorer countries if there were no restrictions.
“In short, in order to ensure that our immigration system works properly, we must secure our nation’s borders, and we must ensure that our laws allow us to process, hold and remove those who unlawfully enter,” Barr said.
7. Justice Dept. morale problems
Barr could face questions about sagging morale at the Department of Justice, which has been a target of Trump’s criticism for the past two years.
Trump fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the day after the midterm election in November after sharply criticizing him for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation. Trump has also blasted FBI repeatedly for corrupt and incompetent leadership and investigators.
Barr said in his prepared remarks that he would protect the department’s integrity.
“Above all else, if confirmed, I will work diligently to protect the professionalism and integrity of the department as an institution, and I will strive to leave it, and the nation, a stronger and better place,” Barr said.
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