President Donald Trump’s efforts to exert control over the Justice Department — one of the few bodies left that can assert a real check on his power and corruption — have been an ongoing crisis and scandal during his time in office. In that context, his nomination of former Attorney General William Barr to retake the top position at the head of the department warrants extreme scrutiny.
And given the fact that Barr crafted a 20-page memo over the summer purporting to argue that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s theory of how the president obstructed justice — a theory Barr can’t, in fact, have had any reliable information about — looks so dubious. He passed the memo along to both Justice Department officials and Trump’s legal team, a move that appears suspiciously like an application for the attorney general position on the basis that he would counter Mueller’s and others’ potential attempts to expose the president’s wrongdoing.
But his history as attorney general on President George H.W. Bush and his standing as a respected conservative legal mind give him credibility among Senate Republicans, all but assuring that his nomination will be successful.
Given the likelihood that he will be approved, here are 10 disturbing moments from his testimony on Tuesday:
1. Barr doesn’t pledge to follow the ethics officials’ advice on recusing himself from investigations.
In perhaps the biggest takeaway of the day, Barr confirmed an answer he had already given to the Senate in writing: While he will consult with ethics officials about whether to recuse from investigations, including those involving the president, he did not pledge to follow their guidance.
“Under the regulations, I make the decision,” he said.
This is particularly disturbing because Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who clearly appeared to be appointed in an effort for the president to gain control over the Mueller probe, reportedly refused an ethics official’s recommendation to recuse from it.
2. He did not commit to making Mueller’s report public.
Barr’s comments on the so-called “Mueller report” were somewhat complicated because, as he correctly pointed out, Mueller is not directed to release a report under the special counsel’s guidelines. Instead, Mueller will submit a report to the attorney general, and the attorney general may or may not then decide to release a public version of a report. Barr said he would try to get out as much information as is possible under the regulations.
But when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked specifically if he would “commit to make public all of the Mueller report’s conclusions, even if some of the evidence supporting the conclusions can’t be made public?” Barr only hedged, saying “That’s certainly my goal and intent.”
3. He said he didn’t know what the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause says.
One of the enduring violations of the Trump presidency has been his flouting of the Constitution’s Emoluments clause, which forbids public officers from taking forms of payment from foreign governments. Lawsuits are currently progressing against the president and the administration in this matter, but when pressed about the issue, Barr implausibly expressed ignorance.
“I think there’s a dispute about what the Emoluments Clause relates to,” Barr said. “I had not personally researched the emoluments clause. I can’t even tell you what it says at this point.”
4. When asked about the reported counterintelligence probe into the president, Barr brought up texts from Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
While he’s implausibly uninformed about the Constitution, Barr is impeccably informed about right-wing talking points. When he was asked about the reported counterintelligence probe of the president and whether such an investigation would have gone through layers of review, Barr claimed ignorance. Instead, he deflected and cited the texts of former FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who became Fox News’ favorite boogeymen in the Russia probe after it was revealed that they had sent disparaging texts about Trump to each other. While they were both highly criticized both internally and externally, they haven’t been found to have taken any official actions based on their anti-Trump views.
5. Barr said he has “no reason to doubt that the Russians attempted to interfere in our election.”
Barr’s comments on the issue seemed to display more wiggle room and more uncertainty about the matter than informed officials have usually displayed. There’s no serious doubt that the Russians not only “attempted” to interfere in the election, but did.
6. If Mueller decides to subpoena the president, Barr may choose to interfere.
When asked whether he would allow Mueller to subpoena the president if he so chooses, Barr would not give a firm answer. This is particularly disturbing because, as Trump’s handpicked attorney general, it would be impossible to treat his decision to veto a proposed Mueller subpoena of the president as an objective and impartial choice.
7. He states that he agreed with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to make it harder for the federal government to control local police forces.
When Sessions left the Justice Department, his last major move was to constrain the department’s ability to oversee and check abuses of power by local police — a regressive move in the era of Black Lives Matter and the continuing revelations of law enforcement’s abuses of power. Barr said he agreed with Sessions’ action.
8. He believes asylum-seekers are “abusing” the asylum system.
Barr also clearly shares Sessions’ and Trump’s anti-immigrant views. He accused asylum-seekers at the border of “abusing” the system, a characterization that demeans vulnerable families seeking safety in the United States.
9. Klobuchar asked if he would jail reporters for doing their jobs — and he didn’t say no.
The Trump administration has been obsessed with stopping leaks — at least those leaks that make Trump himself look bad — a priority that can quickly start to impede on the freedom of the press if journalists are forced to reveal their sources.
When asked directly by Klobuchar about the issue, Barr wasn’t willing to say he won’t jail reporters for doing their jobs.
This was an easy question to answer, and he botched it.
10. He backed Trump’s bogus talking points on the wall.
Unsurprisingly, in addition to his comments about asylum-seekers, the nominee also engaged in Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric on a number of fronts. He attacked “sanctuary cities,” backed Trump’s call for a wall (or “barriers”), and even claimed that the “barriers” would help fight drug trafficking. He made this claim even though, as he admitted, that the majority of drugs coming into the country come through ports of entry. It’s far from clear Trump’s border wall would reduce illegal drug importation at all — especially if its construction and monitoring distracted from other work at ports of entry.