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What Kind of Attorney General Will William Barr Be?

Trump’s pick to replace Jeff Sessions says he won’t interfere with marijuana or Mueller — but stops short of offering to recuse himself from the Russia investigation

Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 15 January 2019. Barr, who was nominated by President Trump to replace the embattled Jeff Sessions, has assured members in private that it is in the best interests of everyone to let the Mueller probe finish it's work.Attorney General nominee William Barr confirmation hearing, Washington, USA - 15 Jan 2019

Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — William Barr, President Trump’s nominee to run the Justice Department as attorney general, entered his confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning with one question looming large: Would he recuse himself from overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation after he blasted Mueller in a private memo last year?

Last June, Barr sent an unsolicited, 20-page critique of Mueller’s possible legal strategy to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and others in Trump’s orbit. In the memo, Barr did not mince words, arguing that a potential obstruction-of-justice case that Mueller was building against the president was “fatally misconceived” and was a threat to the executive branch. Going into Tuesday’s hearing, Democratic lawmakers insisted Barr should follow in Jeff Sessions’ footsteps and recuse himself from managing the Mueller probe if confirmed.

In his opening statement and later in response to questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr repeatedly insisted that he would allow the special counsel to finish his work and do everything he could under the law to make public Mueller’s conclusions and recommendations. But on the crucial question of recusing himself, Barr committed to seeking out the advice of the Justice Department’s ethics lawyers on recusal — but not necessarily following their guidance.

“Under the regulations, I make the decision, as the head of the agency, as to my own recusal,” he said. “So I certainly would consultant with [Justice Department ethics officials], and at the end of the day, I would make a decision in good faith based on the laws and the facts that are evident at that time.”

Barr’s day-long questioning lacked the pyrotechnics or contentious exchanges seen in past confirmation hearings for Trump nominees such as Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and especially Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh last fall. But from a policy perspective, Barr at times fell in line with the president whom he would serve and other times broke with the White House, such as on in the issue of marijuana. Here are some of the most important exchanges from Barr’s confirmation hearing.

Barr has discussed Mueller with Trump, but says he won’t be bullied

Under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member of the judiciary committee, Barr revealed that he had discussed the Mueller probe with people in the Trump White House “but not in substance.”

Later, Barr told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) that he “will not be bullied into doing anything that I think is wrong” by anyone, including President Trump. He went on to say that he would not fire Mueller even if Trump asked him to do it.

Barr Hedged on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election

During a discussion of the Mueller probe, Barr seemed to confirm — then hesitated — on the subject of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, a topic that Trump continues to deflect and deny despite the overwhelming evidence to support it.

“I believe the Russians interfered, or attempted to interfere, with the election, and I think we have to get to the bottom of it,” Barr said.

Barr appeared unfamiliar with the emoluments clause

President Trump is currently being sued by the attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland for violating the emoluments clause, the part of the Constitution that prohibits the president and vice president from accepting gifts and money from domestic and foreign governments. In November, a federal judge ruled that D.C. and Maryland’s emoluments suit could proceed, and the Justice Department has defended the president in the case, arguing that his continued ownership of his Washington, D.C., hotel does not violate the clause.

In his testimony, Barr was asked about the emoluments clause. Barr replied by saying that he hadn’t researched the clause and wasn’t up to speed on the emoluments clause lawsuits against Trump. “I couldn’t even tell you what it says,” he told the senators.

Barr believes the criminal justice system “is working” despite huge racial disparities

In 1992, Barr, then serving as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, authored a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration,” and his tenure was marked by his support for the ill-conceived “war on drugs” and tougher sentencing for drug offenders.

On Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) challenged Barr on his views on the mass incarceration in America and the disproportionate number of men and women of color now in prison. Barr largely stood by his past claims that the criminal justice system “is working” and that “it’s not predicated on racism.”

Pressed by Booker, Barr committed to studying the data on race and crime and conceded that “heavy drug penalties, especially on crack and other things, have harmed the black community.”

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