Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 14, 2019

The confirmation hearings open tomorrow for William P. Barr as attorney general with a few people in new chairs at the Senate Judiciary Committee and one unfilled seat — that of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller.

It seems clear that Democrats want Trump’s nominee for attorney generalto assure them he won’t interfere in the special counsel’s investigation.

Three things are true about these hearings:

· Confirmation is likely, since Republican senators still are in the majority, the bloc having grown by two seats since November, and Barr having experience as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush years.

· Several Senate Democrats on the committee plan to grill Barr at his confirmation hearing on his views on Mueller’s Russia investigation, focusing on a controversial memo Barr wrote last year to Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein criticizing Mueller’s investigation into possible obstruction of justice as “fatally misconceived.”

· Senators on both sides want to maintain a civil mood to keep the process from comparisons with the hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh.

Still, going in, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that Barr should be disqualified from leading the DOJ in part because of the memo and Barr’s view of extremely wide latitude for presidential authority.

“The memorandum is deeply worrisome because in effect he says the president is above the law . . . that’s incorrect as a matter of law but certainly for an attorney general to have that position is deeply wrong,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, who said he will ask Barr if he will stop political interference into the special counsel’s probe. Blumenthal wants Barr to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation if he can’t provide an “ironclad” commitment to protecting Mueller and declines to disavow statements he made in the memo.

Expect questions about the memo Barr wrote last year blasting the Mueller investigation’s focus on whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, in particular when he fired FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. Democrats also want Barr to explain his view of presidential pardons, out of concern that Trump may move to pardon his former associates from the campaign.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL), another committee member, a called it “troublesome” that Barr volunteered his opinion on Mueller’s authority. “I’m sure he’ll deny any culpability and assure me that he’s going to be a straight arrow but I come to it with a degree of skepticism,” he said.

Senate Republicans are bracing for Barr’s hearing to become confrontational, particularly given the contentious nature of the committee’s high-profile hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, has no doubt that Democrats will try to block Barr’s confirmation in no small part because Democratic senators with 2020 aspirations may use the hearing to stand out.

Barr met with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-SC, and former Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley,R-IA.. Graham said that during their meeting, Barr reassured him of his respect for Mueller. “He said ‘I’ve known Bob Mueller for decades,’ their wives are like best friends,” Graham said, adding that Barr believes Mueller is “professional, will be fair to the president, fair to the country and . . . is going to make sure that Bob Mueller can finish his job.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, had similar confidence that the nominee would be largely hands-off when it came to Mueller’s probe.“William P. Barr is what I would call a judicial law-and-order attorney general. He’s not a politician,” Cornyn said.

Barr’s nomination battle comes at a key moment in Trump’s presidency, with the Justice Department . The special counsel’s probe and related work by the Southern Manhattan District has resulted in seven guilty pleas as well as secured a conviction of the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the indictment of several Russians. In turn, Trump continues to label the investigation a “witch hunt,” and has taken to Twitter dozens of times to criticize the investigation and the investigators involved in it.

A bipartisan group of senators are also reintroducing a bill to protect Mueller, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said such a bill isn’t needed and has refused to bring it up for a floor vote.

The hearings also are coming as Rod Rosenstein is reportedly planning to leave the Justice Department after a new attorney general is confirmed. Rosenstein has been overseeing the Mueller investigation.

Stay tuned.