Saturday, January 19, 2019

Barr Falls Short in Promises on Mueller Probe

      As President Trump's nominee to be attorney general, William Barr proved himself in his Senate confirmation hearing testimony last week [Jan. 15] to be a smart guy and a good lawyer. But Barr came across as too lawyer-like to dispel the legitimate doubts about his leading the Justice Department at a critical time in the special counsel's investigation of his White House sponsor.
      Barr distanced himself from Trump at the start of his Senate Judiciary Committee appearance by regretting the government shutdown then in its record-breaking twenty-fifth day and voicing sympathy, un-Trumplike, for furloughed government employees. Later, however, he quibbled over a Democratic senator's reference to the "Trump shutdown" with a bit of false equivalence aimed at Democrats. "It takes two to tango," Barr retorted.
      More substantively, Barr supported his longtime friend and former Justice Department colleague Robert Mueller by emphatically rejecting Trump's familiar characterization of the special counsel's investigation. "I don't believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt," Barr said even while acknowledging Trump's criticisms as "understandable."
      Disagreeing with Trump, however, Barr said that it was "vitally important" that Mueller be allowed to complete the investigation without interference. "If confirmed, I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interference with or any other investigation," he said. "I will follow the Special Counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith and, on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work."
      Barr's qualifications for the Justice Department post were praised by Republican senators and acknowledged by Democrats. He rose in the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush from the Office of Legal Counsel in 1989 to deputy attorney general and attorney general in Bush's last two years in office, 1991 to 1993. Critics, however, underscored that nothing in Barr's previous tenure at Justice demonstrated a willingness to assert independence from the White House.
      In any event, Barr's credentials went unremarked on when Trump interviewed him for attorney general. Trump's only question, according to Barr, was how well he knew Mueller. The president's single-focus curiosity added to the impression that Barr's principal qualification for the post in Trump's mind was the unsolicited 19-page memo that he wrote and then distributed to Justice Department officials questioning Mueller's apparent interest in a possible obstruction of justice charge against the president.
      The memo eventually found its way to Trump, but Barr batted away any insinuation that he wrote the memo to curry Trump's favor in hopes of landing the Justice Department job. At age 68, he told the senators, he had no need to pad his resume and no desire to disrupt a comfortable life with political grief. Barr unsettled those reassurances, however, by fudging on two critical issues: whether he would recuse himself from overseeing Mueller's investigation, given his prior views, and whether he would promise to release the eventual report.
      In a different context, Barr's lawyer-like reluctance to address both questions in advance might have seemed reasonable. The job came open, however, only after Trump berated and then fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions for Sessions' ethics-bound decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Pressed by Democrats, Barr refused to promise to recuse himself even if the Justice Department's ethics office recommended.
      Barr retreated to the Special Counsel regulations to avoid a firm promise to release Mueller's eventual report. He did promise he would not allow the White House to edit the report, but as to releasing the report he went no further than to state that his goal would be to "provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law." With Barr's testimony finished, the committee's ranking Democrat, California's Dianne Feinstein, opined the next day [Jan. 16] that she found Barr's description of his intentions to be "confusing."
      Feinstein said that her eventual vote would depend on the public release issue. She had already conceded to reporters, however, that Barr seemed on the path to "easy confirmation." With Republicans holding a fortified 53-47 majority in the new Senate, Barr's confirmation had been treated as a certainty from the outset. Thus, Democrats used the hearing as best they could to secure commitments. The Democrats' leader, New York's Chuck Schumer, echoed Feinstein in describing Barr's stated goal of transparency as "not good enough."
      As often happens, Barr had moments of confirmation conversion when questioned critically about some of his prior views. He assured the Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, for example, that he would heed Grassley's advice to support enforcement of the False Claims Act despite previous doubts about the law, which incentivizes whistleblowers to sue fraudulent government contractors in the government's name. Barr also promised to implement the sentence-reducing provisions of the newly enacted bipartisan criminal justice reform despite his previous support for policies that fueled late 20th century mass incarceration.
      Barr stuck to his previous view, however, and the official Justice Department position that the president is not subject to criminal indictment while in office. Hypothetically, however, Barr said that witness tampering by a president could constitute obstruction of justice.
      That colloquy gained special attention at week's end after BuzzFeed News reported [Jan. 17] that Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen had told Mueller's office that Trump directed him to lie to Congress about the status of Trump's hoped for Trump Tower in Moscow. "If true," House Democrat Joaquin Castro of Texas remarked on MSNBC, "Trump should either resign or be impeached." From Capitol Hill Republicans, however, only crickets.

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