Senators Push Trump's Attorney General Pick On Impartiality President Trump's choice to lead the Justice Department, William Barr, took questions from lawmakers Tuesday, with the central one being whether Barr will work to impede the Russia investigation. This episode: political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, and justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Senators Push Trump's Attorney General Pick On Impartiality

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Senators Push Trump's Attorney General Pick On Impartiality

Senators Push Trump's Attorney General Pick On Impartiality

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BELLA: Hi. I'm Bella (ph).

LYDIE: And I'm Lydie (ph).

BELLA: We are currently sitting in AP Gov, waiting for class to start, while pondering whether the shutdown will ever end.

LYDIE: This podcast was recorded at...

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

5:49 p.m. on Tuesday, January 15.

BELLA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KURTZLEBEN: Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. Today, William Barr, President Trump's nominee for attorney general, was grilled about what he would do with the Russia investigation. I am Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I also cover the Justice Department.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So to set this up, a quick previously on segment - Barr is set to replace acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who himself replaced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump, as you guys might remember, had some issues with Sessions, if I'm recalling correctly.

JOHNSON: I seem to remember a little bit of criticism.

LUCAS: Just a couple.

KURTZLEBEN: There was a tweet or two. I don't know. Enter Bill Barr. He wants to be Sessions' replacement. So what concerns did Barr have to address to even get through this hearing?

LUCAS: Well, Democrats had a number of issues that they wanted to go through with him, including his views on executive power, on immigration, civil rights, his tough-on-crime views. But the one issue that really was looming over all of this were comments that he's made about special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation and, in particular, a 19-page memo that he wrote which questioned possible obstruction-of-justice investigation that that Mueller is conducting. So those were the issues that, really, Democrats wanted to dig in on. And they did.

KURTZLEBEN: So let's walk through the big moments to see how well he addressed those questions. So, Carrie, let's start with you. What is the big moment or a big moment that really stood out today?

JOHNSON: Well, speaking of criticism of the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president never got over Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from oversight of this Russia investigation, which became this special counsel probe, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

JOHNSON: And so the big question - one of the big questions was, will Bill Barr recuse himself? Bill Barr had said some things that were not so nice in op-eds and to reporters - things like maybe questioning the composition of Robert Mueller's team of prosecutors and FBI agents, maybe questioning why the Justice Department didn't do more to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation and then that memo that Ryan talked about. And people like Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on this committee, had some questions about whether Barr might step aside from oversight.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Will you commit to making any report Mueller produces at the conclusion of his investigation available to Congress and to the public?

WILLIAM BARR: As I said in my statement, I am going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations.

JOHNSON: OK, so what happened here is that Senator Feinstein was pressing Barr about whether he'd recuse. He said, I will seek advice from ethics officials, but I'm going to go my own way and make my own decision. And she more importantly was asking Bill Barr about what he would make public when Robert Mueller is finally done. Of course, the regulations allow for Mueller or tell Mueller to file some kind of wrap-up with the attorney general, who soon will likely be Bill Barr. And the big question is members of Congress and the public want to see what that is. Barr basically said, I believe in transparency, but this is going to be my report. I am the decider here. And I am not giving up my authority in this confirmation hearing. He went so far as to say in a pretty tough exchange with Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, basically, I'm not going to surrender my authority as the attorney general in order to get this job in the first place.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So, Ryan, let's move to you. What was your moment? What's something that really stuck out to you?

LUCAS: A lot of what stuck out to me was how Bill Barr managed to parry a lot of the requests that Democrats made, the demands for pledges that they were looking for. Bill Barr is a longtime lawyer. He was - served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 in the George H.W. Bush administration. This is not his first rodeo. He has done this before. And he was very skillful, I thought, at attempting to push back on Democratic requests. And there are a number of exchanges in which he does that. And here's one with Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

CHRIS COONS: Do you want special counsel Mueller to shield no one and prosecute the case regardless of who is affected?

BARR: I want special counsel Mueller to discharge his responsibilities as a federal prosecutor and exercise the judgment that he's expected to exercise under the rules.

KURTZLEBEN: So decode that. What is he sidestepping? And what is and isn't he saying there?

LUCAS: Well, that was a question that I interpreted as Coons trying to bait him into saying something specific about going after President Trump if the evidence is there. And Barr is essentially saying, we're just going to play by the rules.

KURTZLEBEN: So one more big question looming over all of this was executive power and his views on this. And we saw Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar really trying to nail him down with some questions surrounding this.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: You also said that a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: OK. And on Page 2, you said that a president deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence would be an obstruction. Is that correct?

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: OK. And so what if a president told the witness not to cooperate with an investigation or hinted at a pardon?

BARR: You know, I'd have to know the specific facts.

KLOBUCHAR: OK. And you wrote on Page 1 that if a president knowingly destroys or alters evidence, that would be obstruction.

BARR: Yes.

KLOBUCHAR: OK. So what if a president drafted a misleading statement to conceal the purpose of a meeting? Would that be obstruction?

BARR: Again, you know, I'd have to know the specifics.

JOHNSON: OK. So this is an example...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: ...Of taking - ripped from the headlines and news stories about the president of the United States and trying to beat the nominee about the head and face with them.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah.

JOHNSON: And Barr basically said, I'd have to have more specifics. But we know that President Trump and his lawyers have talked about with witnesses and subjects of this investigation possible pardons. President Trump himself said in front of a whole bunch of reporters and TV cameras not so long ago that pardons are not off the table for a whole bunch of people, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and maybe Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser. One person unlikely to get a pardon is his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, whom President Trump has called weak and a rat.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

JOHNSON: But Barr basically said the president has the power to pardon people, but if he does it for a really bad purpose or as a way to get people to lie or not incriminate him, there would be a problem. That problem, though, Barr says, would likely be a constitutional problem, an impeachment problem - not a legal problem, an indictment problem.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So, guys, a big thing looming over this - we've covered a lot of it - is the Russia investigation. What did we learn today, if anything, that's new here?

JOHNSON: Well, Bill Barr didn't go out of his way to criticize the president or take issue with President. But he did say some nice things about people the president doesn't like very much. He said he understands - and Jeff Sessions was probably right to recuse himself. Bill Barr says he has a very high opinion of the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And Bill Barr also says he has no reason to doubt the idea that the Russians attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. And he doesn't believe that Bob Mueller has been conducting a witch hunt. And as you know, Bob Mueller's been the guy's friend for 30 years. So he's probably not going to fire him.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

LUCAS: There was one other thing that isn't directly - well, it is directly related to the Russia investigation.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

LUCAS: And this is a meeting that Barr had with the president at the White House in June of 2017 that we were unaware of before. And Barr told the story of how he was called in by the ambassador to Israel. It was largely about possibly joining the president's personal legal team. Barr said, ultimately, he didn't want to do that. It wasn't going to work.

JOHNSON: He said it was like a meat grinder. He didn't want to stick his head in the meat grinder.

KURTZLEBEN: This very...

LUCAS: OK, so he was a little more colorful with his language.

KURTZLEBEN: That was amazing turn of phrase.

JOHNSON: Since we're celebrating the 20 years of "The Sopranos," I had to get the meat grinder in there.

LUCAS: Fair, fair.

(LAUGHTER)

LUCAS: So what he also said was - a lot of the conversation revolved around Bob Mueller. And Barr was asked what he thought of Mueller, about Mueller. And Barr essentially said he's a straight shooter, and he should be treated as such. He gave the president his number. He said he didn't hear back from him at any point in time until it came to discuss the attorney general's position. So that was a meeting that we hadn't heard before - certainly something that is going to raise questions in the minds of Democrats about possibly improper conduct or adds to their belief that there should be reason for him to recuse.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah.

LUCAS: But for Republicans right now there's enough support - there appears to be enough support, at least - for Barr that this confirmation is likely going to happen.

KURTZLEBEN: Got you. OK. Well, with that, we're going to take a quick break. And we'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: And we're back. OK, guys, we talked about what you thought were key moments. But this is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, and we do have to talk about the politics of all this. Potential 2020 candidates who are on the committee were trying to flex their muscles.

JOHNSON: You know, and one of them was Kamala Harris...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Whose book you just reviewed, Danielle. I mean, what do you think she's trying to do here?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, what she's trying to do is what she's trying to do in her book, which is sort of show, I am a prosecutor. I am tough. I have bona fides. Here, let me show you. And she, you know, also like Amy Klobuchar - herself a former prosecutor - both really kind of went at Bill Barr today and with these very rapid-fire questions where it was clear they started asking a very simple question, but the questions very clearly led to a very particular place. And actually, here is Kamala Harris with her exchange with him over recusal.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

BARR: Well, there are different kinds of recusals. Some are mandated - for example, if you have a financial interest. But there are others that are judgment calls. And...

KAMALA HARRIS: Let's imagine it's a judgment call. And the judgment by the career ethics officials in the agency are that you recuse yourself. Under what scenario would you not follow their recommendation?

BARR: If I disagreed with it.

HARRIS: And what would the basis of that disagreement be?

BARR: I came to a different judgment.

HARRIS: On what basis?

BARR: The facts.

HARRIS: Such as?

BARR: Such as whatever facts are relevant to the recusal.

HARRIS: What do you imagine the facts would be that are relevant to the recusal?

BARR: They could be innumerable.

KURTZLEBEN: It's like she's trying to nail Jell-O to a wall or something (laughter).

LUCAS: I will say there were times when Barr was more skillful and times when he was less skillful. I thought that in this exchange, Harris and her pedigree as an attorney came out. She has shown the ability to kind of pin a witness down in past hearings on the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as the Judiciary Committee. And I think that she showed a bit of that skill today.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So leaving aside potential 2020 contenders trying to show off and get at whatever they were trying to get at and leaving aside Russia, there was a lot of other stuff in question today, a lot of other important topics that came up - immigration, the wall, marijuana. What stuck out to you guys as really important?

JOHNSON: He had a lengthy exchange with Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, about Barr's last time in the DOJ, which was the early 1990s when Barr said, basically - I hate to put it this way - but that there was blood in the streets. The violent crime rate was very high. The level of homicides were very high. And Bill Barr was, like, such a tough-on-drugs, tough-on-crime prosecutor that he, in one case, came out basically in favor of capital punishment for a drug offender, which is now considered to be somewhat outside the mainstream, right? And Cory Booker was trying to impress on Bill Barr what it felt like to be a young man of color in these communities and trying to get Barr to understand, basically, that the justice system is often viewed as disproportionately punitive on young men of color. And Barr didn't give a whole lot of ground. He said he did basically support this new criminal justice law - the First Step Back. But he and Booker agreed to disagree and maybe talk about it some more.

LUCAS: He did spend a lot of time defending views that he had in the early '90s and drawing a contrast and saying that that was a very different time. And his views then were not outside of the mainstream. And things may have changed since then. And he's willing to consider those changes. But as you also noted, a lot of times, he did not give much ground.

JOHNSON: He didn't give much ground. He basically said that he agreed with a lot of the Jeff Sessions approach to civil rights, which - I know dismayed civil rights advocates in the room who were sending me email messages about it. I do not expect a lot of additional police oversight and system-wide investigations of police departments under Attorney General Bill Barr if he's confirmed. Bill Barr also basically said, listen. I may not love the status quo when it comes to federal - the federal approach to marijuana, but the current regime where many states are just doing what they want to do breeds disrespect for the law. That was the real Bill Barr coming out right there. He is a conservative, and he does not believe that a federal law should be disrespected. Basically, he called on Congress just to make a change, to basically either get rid of marijuana as regulated under the Controlled Substances Act very tightly or regulate it all the way. But he said the current regime and the current federal approach to marijuana is not going to work.

LUCAS: Barr also showed kind of his hard-line credentials on immigration policy, talked about supporting the idea of building a barrier along the southern border to keep out drugs, to keep out immigrants. He says immigration reform is long overdue. But he also talked about sanctuary cities and talking about how they hurt the ability to protect the public. And those are definitely policies that we heard a lot of from Jeff Sessions.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So simple question - is he going to be confirmed?

LUCAS: The math is firmly on Barr's side and getting confirmed. Republicans hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate. There haven't been any cracks in Republican support for him so far. He may pick up some Democrats, as well. So at this point, barring a disaster and some of the written followup comments that he still has to make, he looks like he'll likely get confirmed, yes.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, one other big question I'm curious about it - and I think a lot of people are curious about - is, how tied would Barr be to the particular whims of the president, who, you know, really tried to for example pressure Jeff Sessions and really got after Jeff Sessions when he didn't do what he wanted? I mean, what did we learn today about that?

JOHNSON: Bill Barr made it clear that he was coming back to the Justice Department, if that's, in fact, what happens, after 27 years with some reluctance. He was supposed to ride off into the sunset with his wife and enjoy his children and grandchildren and kind of chill out. And friends of his have asked me, like, does this guy need his head examined? Why is he entering this department at this time in history? And Bill Barr was asked that question. And here's what he had to say about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

BARR: If you take this job, you have to be ready to make decisions and spend all your political capital and have no future because you have to do - 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.

JOHNSON: Listen. This guy is 68 years old. If he has to quit, he'll quit. And he's not going to worry about it. He's just going to leave. And that may be what the Justice Department needs at this moment in time.

KURTZLEBEN: So sort of come-at-me answer.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, that's a wrap for today. But there is news literally every five seconds, so there's no doubt that we'll be back very soon. Until then, head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter to subscribe to our weekly roundup of our best online news and analysis. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson. I cover the Justice Department.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I also cover the Justice Department.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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