William Barr, President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next attorney general, met Thursday with Senate Democrats who have questioned his nomination over his criticisms of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Barr made private assurances to her that he wouldn’t interfere with the Mueller probe.
Now she needs to hear them in public.
“Well, my intention will be to get that on the record before I’m satisfied,” Feinstein told reporters after her meeting with Barr. “It’s very important that Mueller be able to have no interference whatsoever. And that’s what I would want to hear (in) public.”
Feinstein said the meeting went “well” but she didn’t tip her hand on whether she would consider supporting Barr, who previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. “To some extent he’s a known factor, he’s been there before,” Feinstein said. “So, the key is that times change and views change and laws change. So, the question is, is he right for this time? And can he really be independent of the White House?”
Democrats plan to make Barr’s views on the Mueller investigation a key part of next week’s confirmation hearings to replace acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker atop the Justice Department. They’ve ramped up concerns about Barr’s nomination after learning of a memo he wrote last year arguing Mueller’s investigation into obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived.”
Democrats also plan to press Barr on numerous issues beyond the special counsel, including his views on presidential pardons and the independence of the Justice Department, as well as his positions on surveillance issues, immigration and abortion law.
Last month, Feinstein sent a letter to Barr with a list of questions about the origins of the memo. She said she “didn’t ask him about that” at Thursday’s meeting, “but I will in public.”
Barr’s place atop the Justice Department would put him in charge of Mueller’s investigation, giving him the ability to approve or veto decisions like issuing subpoenas and what to do with Mueller’s final report. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is planning to leave the Justice Department after Barr is confirmed, has been in charge of supervising Mueller until then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired last year. Whitaker is now in charge of the probe, though the day-to-day management remains in Rosenstein’s portfolio.
In addition to Feinstein, Barr was meeting Thursday with several Judiciary Committee Democrats, including Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Barr’s meetings with lawmakers began Wednesday with former Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and the panel’s new chairman Lindsey Graham. After Graham’s meeting, the South Carolina Republican said Barr made clear he was committed to allowing Mueller to finish his investigation unimpeded, and he said that Barr’s memo was a result of his concerns about the precedent of obstruction of justice and the firing of political appointees.
But those explanations haven’t satisfied Democrats on the committee.
“I think those assurances were self-serving, and even somewhat evasive,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, who added he has yet to get a private meeting on the books with Barr. “One of the reasons I want a meeting is to hear for myself what he has to say.”
Barr’s private meetings with Democrats have been a point of contention, as several senators say they have requested meetings but were rebuffed, which goes against practice for committee members ahead of a confirmation hearing. Klobuchar took to Twitter Wednesday night to complain that she hadn’t been given a chance to sit down with Barr.
By Thursday morning, she had a meeting on the books.
Klobuchar told reporters Thursday that although she was pleased she now had a meeting with the attorney general nominee, she questioned whether the whole episode was a sign the process was moving too quickly to get Barr’s confirmation through.
“To me, it feels like they rushed this hearing,” she said. “And we want to get a permanent AG in place, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t have given time to get … these meetings set up.”
Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, met with Barr on Thursday evening. Coons said he was also assured that Barr would not interfere in the Mueller probe after asking him a series of questions.
“I asked him, will you allow the Mueller investigation to continue unimpeded, will you allow prosecutorial decisions by Mueller to advance without interference, will you allow its budget to continue without interference and, in particular, if the President ordered you to fire Robert Mueller, would you do so or would you resign,” Coons said.
Coons said that Barr told him, “I think it is very important to the rule of law, to public confidence in the Department of Justice, that the Mueller investigation be allowed to conclude unimpeded.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.