In anticipation of his Tuesday confirmation hearing, William P. Barr attempted to head off objections to his nomination to become attorney general based on a prior 19-page memo he drafted, which seemed to disagree with the special investigation into President Trump. The Post reported:
Attorney general nominee William P. Barr said in written testimony released Monday that he would let special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finish his investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign without political interference and that it was “very important” Congress and the public be informed of the results.
Is that good enough? Well, for starters, his statement evades the issue of recusal. In his written submission to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr promised to consult with ethics lawyers. Now, he apparently isn’t promising to do even that. The Senate should insist on the Jeff Sessions standard: The attorney general must consult with and follow the advice of Justice Department ethics lawyers.
Moreover, his pledge should not spare him from a raft of critical questions. These include:
- Why did you offer such a definitive opinion without knowing the relevant facts?
- Have you changed your mind about the appropriateness of the investigation?
- Is there anything unconstitutional about it?
- Does [special counsel] Robert S. Mueller III have any conflicts of interest? Has he done anything to raise concerns about his ethics?
- If faced with the need to appoint a special counsel, would you have recommended Mueller? Why or why not?
- Does the slew of indictments, pleas and the Paul Manafort conviction demonstrate that this is not a “witch hunt”?
- Does the president do damage to the rule of law by claiming that it is a witch hunt, or by smearing Mueller?
- You called for Hillary Clinton to be investigated over the Uranium One deal. What basis is there for such an inquiry? Hasn’t the entire episode been repeatedly debunked?
- Is it appropriate to order an investigation of a political opponent without a factual predicate?
- If a White House staffer or the president tells you to drop charges against, or not file charges against a president’s family member or crony, what would you do? If this has been done in the past, would it have been wrong and would it have constituted an abuse of power?
- What should the ground rules for communications between the White House and Justice Department be? Do Justice Department attorneys understand the rules?
- Will you pledge to report any inappropriate contacts with between Justice Department and the White House?
- Were Trump’s attacks against the integrity and independence of federal courts wrong? Would you refrain from similar attacks?
- Should the president criticize the prosecution or otherwise comment on an ongoing trial, one in which the jury is not sequestered?
- Is it ever appropriate for the president to badger a Justice Department official into not recusing himself when ethics rules require he do so?
- Can the president obstruct justice by, say, taking a bribe for a pardon to quiet a witness? By destroying evidence? By dangling a pardon?
- Was the first article of impeachment drafted against President Richard M. Nixon — referencing efforts to impede an investigation, repeated lies to the American people, to pressure witnesses not to cooperate — valid grounds under the “High Crimes & Misdemeanors” clause? Is lying to voters to conceal illegal help from a foreign government?
- If there are reasonable grounds for suspecting the president is operating at the behest of a hostile foreign government, should the Justice Department or FBI investigate?
- What process did you follow in President George H.W. Bush’s pardon of multiple Iran-contra figures? What precautions did you take, if any, to make certain this was not an attempt by the president to halt an inquiry into his own conduct? Will you insist that the Justice Department process for pardons be followed?
- Can one prosecute a sitting president? If the answer is no, and you want to prosecute him later, how do you address the statute of limitations?
- Do you know of any evidence of widespread voting fraud by people impersonating other voters? If not, what’s the purpose of federal ID laws?
- Should the Voting Rights Act be amended to reestablish pre-clearance rules?
- Will you investigate efforts that are aimed at making it more difficult for minorities and poor Americans to vote?
- Trump has publicly smeared FBI employees, the deputy attorney general, his former attorney general and other Justice Department officials. What would you do if does so while you are attorney general?
- Is it constitutional to eject a White House reporter based on the viewpoints of his news outlet?
- Should a president ever threaten to pull a license or conduct other executive branch actions in response to critical news coverage?
- Can a president declare an emergency because Congress won’t provide funding on an item he wants? Isn’t that what the veto is for? Can an emergency either be optional or conditional on congressional negotiations?
There are plenty of other questions, but that should provide a good start.
As we have said before, Barr is probably the most competent person Trump could get to serve as his attorney general. The task in the confirmation hearing should be to determine whether there are serious problems and, just as important, to have him dispel baseless allegations Trump has made, and for Barr to pledge to resist Trump’s attacks against the rule of law.