Two years ago, then-Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama faced a rough interview for his dream job as President Donald Trump’s attorney general.
The confirmation hearing before a Senate panel was interrupted several times. Code Pink protesters and a few people in white hooded costumes holding “KKK #1” fingers showed up and were thrown out. Perhaps most striking of all, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey testified against Sessions – an unprecedented rebuke in the close and collegial chamber – over his civil rights record. In the end, Sessions was confirmed with the support of every Republican and only one Democrat.
In November, Trump fired Sessions and nominated George H.W. Bush-era Attorney General Bill Barr to replace him. During Barr’s seven-hour hearing Tuesday, no one was ejected. The only interruptions taken were for Barr’s comfort. And on Wednesday, no member of Congress took the stand against him.
While Barr’s nomination may not get more Democratic support than Sessions did, it’s clear that the tone of the debate has shifted since then.
Already, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Democrats expected to run for president in 2020 have announced their opposition. But the pick has somewhat pacified the Senate, while other major fights – including the longest government shutdown ever – continue to rage. In interviews over the past two days, Republican and Democratic senators said they were impressed by Barr’s temperament, experience and overall sense of how to handle special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the main topic during his hearings.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat, told CNN that Sessions, a prominent Trump supporter during the 2016 campaign whose confirmation hearing was held before the President’s inauguration, became “the first Exhibit A” of the new Trump administration. Barr, Durbin said, “comes in at a much different circumstance.”
“He is clearly a conservative Republican,” Durbin said. “But he doesn’t fit, obviously, in the Trump camp on most issues, (although) there is some he does.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called Barr “obviously very smart,” “bright” and “capable,” asserting that he “clearly understands” the importance of “protecting” the Department of Justice and the Mueller probe from political interference.
“No one can say he isn’t qualified,” she said. “He was attorney general before.”
On CNN, Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said he was “broadly encouraged” by Barr’s “tone,” “forcefulness” and “determination to be independent of the President and to protect the Department of Justice and Mueller’s investigation.” Even Booker cheered some of Barr’s responses, including his stance to not prioritize the enforcement of federal marijuana law in states where pot is legal.
In their questioning, many senators focused on a memo Barr wrote last year to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in which Barr called the special counsel’s inquiry into Trump’s potential obstruction of justice “fatally misconceived” and said Mueller “should not be permitted to demand that the President submit to interrogation about alleged obstruction.”
Barr sought to reassure senators by noting his 30-year friendship with Mueller and that there wasn’t any opposition to his nomination in the 1990s.
He pledged to release “as much as I can” of Mueller’s findings to the public, to provide the special counsel with the resources and time to finish the job, to not terminate Mueller without good cause and to notify Congress if he denied a major request during the investigation. And he said he would resign “if someone tried to stop a bona fide, lawful investigation to try to cover up wrongdoing.”
In the aftermath, Democrats said he needed to go further. Feinstein thought he equivocated on whether he would send Congress, and the public, the Mueller report. On Wednesday, she said it should be made public without much redaction. “My vote depends on that,” she said.
Barr seemed aware that his “tough-on-crime” approach, which was in vogue 30 years ago, is less popular now and he committed to implementing the First Step Act, a bill overwhelmingly passed by Congress last year to overhaul prison and sentencing laws.
While that pleased many senators, Booker said he was disappointed in other aspects of Barr’s testimony, claiming he “didn’t seem to be aware of the compelling, unequivocal evidence of implicit racial bias and racial disparities in incarceration and sentencing.”
In the hearing, Barr noted that the crime rate had precipitously dropped since he had been in charge of the department. He noted he had said that while there is “racism still in the system,” overall it was not “predicated on racism,” and he pledged to analyze the intersection of race and criminal justice.
Some high-profile Democrats will likely vote no.
On Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris of California said she would vote against the nomination for a variety of reasons, including an “ineffective and draconian approach to border security” – Barr has called for “barriers and walls and slats” at the US-Mexico border – and for not committing to recuse himself even if career Department of Justice officials advised him to do so.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told CNN she wouldn’t vote for Barr since he “wants to overturn Roe v. Wade,” “has a terrible record on criminal justice” and didn’t assure her that he would adequately protect the special counsel probe.
“I want to hear that he’s going to make the report public,” she said.
But some Democrats who didn’t vote for Sessions said they would give this attorney general nominee a fresh look.
“I’m going to consider it seriously,” Coons told CNN.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.