The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday along party lines to advance William Barr’s nomination to become attorney general, a procedural step that sets the stage for his confirmation vote next week before the entire Senate.
Because Republicans control the Senate, Barr is likely to be confirmed easily – though potentially without any Democratic support. At the Judiciary Committee’s hearing Thursday, all 10 panel Democrats voted against moving the nomination forward, while all 12 Republicans voted to advance it.
Democrats said they were particularly concerned that Barr would not specifically commit to letting the public see whatever report results from the special-counsel investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“They paid for it,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has co-sponsored a bill that would require the findings to be released. “They deserve to see everything that’s in it.”
Barr is unquestionably experienced – having served previously in a variety of high-level Justice Department positions, including as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration – and was viewed as one of the more mainstream options among those Trump was said to be considering.
Barr would inherit the Justice Department at one of the most politically charged periods in its history as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation seems to be nearing its end. Barr has publicly and privately raised questions about that probe, which is exploring whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and lawmakers from both political parties have pressed him on the extent to which he will make its findings public.
Barr has declined to offer a firm guarantee that he would release Mueller’s report in its entirety – noting that the regulations governing Mueller’s appointment do not call for that. While Barr has vowed to be as transparent as he can be, Democratic lawmakers have said that is not adequate.
Blumenthal said not releasing Mueller’s report would be akin to a “cover-up.” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was concerned that Barr’s previous testimony on the subject “could lay the groundwork for potentially no transparency at all.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said that Barr, as attorney general, would have the authority to change policies that currently might prohibit him from revealing information about Mueller’s work and that his nomination must be considered in the context of the historic moment in which the Justice Department finds itself.
“This is not a time to mess around with the Constitution,” she said.
Democrats are not alone in wanting Mueller’s findings to be made public. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, noted at Thursday’s hearing that he had introduced the bill with Blumenthal that would require the special counsel to produce a report to Congress when his work was done. But Grassley said he would support Barr’s nomination, despite his reluctance to commit to releasing Mueller’s findings.
Similarly, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said that the Justice Department would “be better off just disclosing” Mueller’s report, but that he was confident the document would be leaked. And he praised Barr emphatically.
“I think he reveres the law and the rule of law,” Kennedy said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the committee’s chairman, said that Barr had to be talked into returning to the Justice Department and that he trusted him to be “fair to the public and true to the law.”
Lawmakers have raised questions about a memo Barr wrote to Justice Department leaders questioning what he saw as the “fatally misconceived” theory of Trump obstructing justice that Mueller seemed to be exploring.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Judiciary Committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, said Thursday that she felt the document was “disqualifying” for Barr.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said he felt Barr was a “good person”; he likened him to Jim Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, who had a reputation for being independent and resigned from the administration amid disagreements with the president. But he said he could not understand the memo and would vote against Barr’s nomination.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Durbin said.
The Judiciary Committee late last week postponed its vote on advancing Barr’s nomination amid concerns from Democrats – which is customary for high-profile nominations. Barr, meanwhile, scheduled several individual meetings with lawmakers, seeking to answer whatever outstanding questions they might have had.
Barr pledged at his confirmation hearing to keep politics out of Justice Department decisions and said he would refuse an instruction from the president to fire Mueller absent good cause to do so.