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Trump’s attorney general pick faces Senate hearing

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What we covered here

  • William Barr: President Trump’s attorney general pick testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing.
  • Why this is important: If confirmed, Barr is the man who will decide the fate of the Mueller probe.
  • Trump’s previous attorneys general: Trump nominated Barr after picking Matthew Whitaker to be acting attorney general. Whitaker replaced Jeff Sessions, who was fired in November.
  • About that memo: Barr authored a memo to senior Justice Department officials last year, calling the special counsel’s obstruction probe “fatally misconceived.”
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Barr's confirmation hearing adjourns for the day

The first day of attorney general nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing has ended for the day.

The hearing will resume at 9:30 a.m. ET tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

President has power to pardon family member but could be held accountable for abusing power, Barr says

Attorney general nominee William Barr said President Trump has power to pardon a family member — but could be held accountable politically for abusing power.

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons brought about the subject of pardoning family members during Barr’s confirmation hearing today.

Barr said the President has pardon powers under the Constitution.

“But, you can abuse a power. So the answer to your question in my opinion would be, yes, he does have the power to pardon a family member. But he would then have to face the fact that he could be held accountable for abusing his power. Or, if it was connected to some act that violates an obstruction statute, it could be obstruction,” he said.

Asked how the President would be held accountable, Barr said, “Well, in the absence of a violation of a statute, which is, as you know, in order to prosecute someone, they have to violate a statute — in the absence of that, then you know, he’d be accountable politically.”

Barr says he sees "no reason" to change policy not to indict a sitting president 

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked attorney general nominee William Barr if a sitting president can be indicted while in office.

Trump’s nominee said he sees “no reason” to change the policy for not indicting presidents while in office.

Here’s how the exchange went down:

Blumenthal: The question is whether the President could be prosecuted while in office. I happen to believe that he could be. Even if the trial were postponed until he is out of office, but because the statute of limitations might run, for any other number of reasons, a prosecution would be appropriate. Would you agree?

Barr: Well, you know, for forty years, the position of the executive branch has been you can’t indict a sitting president.

Blumenthal: Well, it’s the tradition based on a couple of (Office of Legal Counsel) opinions, but now it is potentially an imminent, indeed immediate possibility, and I am asking you for your opinion now, if possible, but if not now, perhaps at some point.

Barr: Are you asking me if I would change that policy?

Blumenthal: I am asking you what your view is right now.

Barr: You know, I actually haven’t read those opinions in a long time. But I see no reason to change them.

Barr defends Trump's use of the term "witch hunt"

William Barr defended President Trump’s use of the term “witch hunt” to describe special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, saying he has “presumably” a better understanding of the facts than outside observers and has denied collusion.

“We have to remember that the President is the one that has denied that there was any collusion and has been steadfast in that, so presumably he knows facts. I don’t know facts. I don’t think anyone here knows facts. But I think it’s understandable that if someone felt they were falsely accused they would view an investigation as something like a witch hunt, where someone like you or me who doesn’t know the facts might not use that term,” Barr said.

Earlier in his confirmation hearing, Barr said he didn’t believe Mueller “would be involved in a witch hunt.”

Some background: Trump has repeatedly called the special counsel investigation a “witch hunt,” dismissing it as a frivolous investigation launched by his political enemies seeking to delegitimize his 2016 election victory. (Read more about some of the times Trump called the Russia probe a “witch hunt” here.)

Barr doesn't give concrete answer on birthright citizenship

Attorney general nominee William Barr was unable to give a definitive answer about whether he thought the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship.

In the US, citizenship is governed by the 14th amendment to the constitution, which states “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Why this matters: In October, President Trump vowed to end birthright citizenship — the process by which babies born in the country automatically become citizens — by executive order, while claiming the US was the only nation around the world to grant such rights.

Despite Trump’s claim that he can revoke this right by executive order, it is almost certainly impossible without a constitutional amendment, the laborious process by which the US Congress and state governments can vote to change the constitution.

Barr says he would recuse himself from DOJ appeal of AT&T and Time Warner merger

William Barr committed today that he would “absolutely” recuse himself from matters regarding the Justice Department’s appeal of the merger of AT&T and Time Warner.

Why this matters: Barr questioned the impartiality of the Justice Department’s lawsuit to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner when he was on Time Warner’s Board. The exchange was highlighted during his confirmation hearing Tuesday. 

According to a declaration filed in the case on Feb. 17, 2018, Barr disputed Antitrust Chief Makan Delrahim’s characterization of a November 2017 meeting between Justice Department officials and AT&T and Time Warner executives.

As part of that declaration, Barr expressed the belief that the DOJ’s lawsuit to block the acquisition “was inconsistent with decades of settled antitrust law and the Department of Justice’s own internal merger guidelines.” As such, Barr questioned “whether the Division had a genuine basis for bringing this enforcement action or instead was acting to serve a political end.”

Barr continued: “The discomfort I felt at the end of the meeting was the result of my concern that Mr. Delrahim’s position about the alleged harms from the merger … [was] the product not of a well-versed substantive analysis, but rather political or other motivation. As the former Attorney General that is disturbing to me.” 

Though not raised at trial, AT&T and Time Warner repeatedly pointed to President Trump’s constant attacks on CNN as the real reason the Justice Department sued to block the merger, something Justice Department officials have denied.

Democrat asks Barr what the Justice Department should know about the President's business dealings with foreign powers

In his second round of questioning, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tried to get William Barr to describe what the Department of Justice and FBI should know about senior officials who have business relationships with foreign interests and governments.

Barr asked Whitehouse to be more specific about which the official he was talking about — to which Whitehouse replied, “let’s start with the President.”

What this is all about: Whitehouse was trying to get at the fact that the DOJ and FBI should know about President Trump’s business dealings with foreign powers because the President is “in a position to make decisions that are biased or influenced by those business relationships.”

Instead of answering the question, Barr discussed the instances congressmen did not need to go through background checks and ultimately concluded “business [relationships] with a foreign interest is not ordinarily a counter-intelligence concern.” 

Ultimately, Whitehouse changed his line of questioning.

“Ok, you don’t want to answer it I’ll move on” the senator said.

Kamala Harris asked Barr if he'd go against ethics officials' recusal advice. Here's what he said.

In her line of questioning, California Sen. Kamala Harris tried to draw out a situation in which attorney general nominee William Barr would not take the advice of career ethics officials if they advised him to recuse himself.

If it came down to a judgement call, Barr said he could ignore the advice of those officials — if he disagreed with that advice based on a “different judgement of the facts.”

Here’s how the exchange went down:

Harris: So my question is would it be appropriate to go against the advice of career ethics officials that have recommended recusal, and can you give an example of under what situation or scenario you would go against the recommendation that you recuse yourself?

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-

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 judgement.

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 that the facts would be that are relevant to the recusal?

Barr: They could innumerable. I mean, there a lot of, you know know for example, there’s a rule of necessity, like who else would be handling it-

Harris: Do you believe that would be a concern in this situation if you are- if the recommendation is that you recuse yourself from the Mueller investigation do you believe that would be a concern that there would be no one left to do the job?

Barr: No, I’m just saying well, in some context, there very well might be, because who is confirmed for what and who is in what position. But a part from that, it’s a judgment call, and the attorney general is the person who makes the judgement and that’s what the job entails.

Harris: As a general matter that’s true, but specifically in this issue, under what scenario would you imagine that you would not follow the recommendation of the career ethics officials in the Department of Justice to recuse yourself from the Mueller investigation.

Barr: If I disagreed with them.

Barr says his "goal is to get as much of the information" from Mueller's report to Congress and the public

Pressed on whether he’d provide a copy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to Congress, attorney general nominee William Barr said he’d try to release as much information as possible to lawmakers and the public.

Barr went on to say that he would talk to Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on how to handle the report.

“But all I can say at this stage, because I have no clue as to what’s being planned, is that I am going to try to get the information out there consistent with these regulations and to the extent I have discretion, I will exercise that discretion to do that,” he said.

Here's how Barr says he'll lead the Justice Department if he's confirmed

Asked to characterize how he would lead the Justice Department, attorney general nominee William Bar said his plan would be to get good lieutenants and subordinates, and create a clear set of priorities while also enforcing “all the law.” 

The Justice Department, he said, is in some way different and “not so different” the early 1990s when he led the it under the Bush administration.

“But my basic approach to things is to get good lieutenants, good subordinates running different parts of the agenda and give them their marching orders, and watch them perform, and get involved to the extent I can to make sure we are pushing the priorities things ahead,” Barr said.

The department’s first priority must be to enforce the law, he said.

“It’s not like we can just come into work and say well we’re just going to just pay attention to this so we’re not going to enforce all these other laws. We have to cover the waterfront. That’s No. 1,” Barr said.

Barr signals he won't go after companies in states that legalized marijuana

An airplane descends to land at Los Angeles International Airport above a billboard advertising the marijuana delivery service Eaze on July 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. A number of marijuana delivery apps are available in the state. Recreational use of marijuana became legal in California on Jan. 1.

Attorney general nominee William Barr today signaled he would not go after companies in states that have legalized marijuana under that current system.

Barr said he would not “go after companies that have relied on the Cole memorandum,” referring to Obama-era policy of non-interference with marijuana-friendly state laws. (Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the memo.)

However: Barr said he thinks there should be a federal law that “prohibits marijuana everywhere.” 

Democratic senator to Barr: "Just asking us to trust you is not enough"

William Barr praised the decision by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. But in his confirmation hearing today, he criticized the way Sessions “locked himself into” following recusal advice from ethics officials at the Justice Department.

“He’s the one responsible for making the recusal decision. I don’t know why he locked himself into following the advice. That’s an abdication of his own responsibility,” Barr said.

Barr said earlier in the hearing that he would seek advice from department ethics officials on whether he should recuse himself from oversight of Mueller’s probe, but would not commit to following that advice.

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono pressed Barr on why he would not commit to recusing himself from the Mueller probe.

She reminded Barr that “these are not normal times.”

Hirono also hinted that President Trump selected Barr to be his next attorney general because he “will do anything to protect himself” and views Barr as looking favorable on his situation.

She asked Barr, “Why won’t you simply follow Jeff Session’s lead and take and follow the critical portion being follow the advice of the Department’s ethics officials?”

Barr said the reason he would not follow Jeff Sessions’ lead was “because the regulations and the responsibilities of attorney general as the head of the agency vest that responsibility in the attorney general. And I am not going to surrender the responsibilities of the attorney general to get the title. I don’t need the title.”

In 1992, Barr told CNN that Roe v. Wade "will fall." Here's what he said about it today.

William Barr, President Trump’s attorney general nominee, backtracked on comments he made about Roe v. Wade he made almost three decades years ago.

Asked about comments he made in 1991, in which he said Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, Barr said this: