In his confirmation hearings this week, President Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, did his best to reassure wary Democrats and portray himself as a guardian of the Constitution. Instead, what Democrats heard is his expansive view of the power of the presidency, which left them fearing what the future attorney general will do to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“My big concern all along is Mueller,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to a small group of reporters huddled in the basement of the Capitol during a break in the hearings.
Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and the first woman to hold that powerful role, went out of her way to call Barr “a man of integrity” and “a man of courage.” But nothing she heard diminished her concern about the now infamous 19-page, single-spaced memo Barr sent to the White House last summer laying out his vision of what Trump – or any president — can “lawfully” do.
“He’s made as strong a case for the unitary executive as I’ve ever seen. And that’s the all-powerful president – able to do anything,” Feinstein said. “Our system of checks and balances – our Constitution – really is the tempering influence of that.”
Even with those concerns, Feinstein’s still undecided on how to vote on Barr. She says she’s wrestling with the juxtaposition between Barr’s impassioned writings about the innate power of the president and his attempts to make that view of executive power palatable to the legislative branch.
“He’s made as strong a case for the unitary executive as I’ve ever seen.”
While Feinstein is torn, most other Democrats aren’t.
"I believe it's disqualifying”
“I believe it’s disqualifying,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, who is respected on both sides of the aisle, told VICE News. “The fact that he sent these unsolicited memos that are a bit unseemly as a job application, basically pointing out his willingness, I think, to undermine Mueller or have this very expansive view of the president’s executive power, I believe it’s disqualifying.”
Republicans beg to differ, including newly-minted Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R- S.C.) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the main GOP sponsors of legislation that would protect Mueller from Barr or interference from the president.
“I don’t know how more explicit Mr. Barr could have been, and, you know, I’m somebody who has an opinion about the Mueller investigation and seeing it completed,” Tillis told VICE News while riding in an elevator in the Capitol.
Tillis contends his bill isn’t even about Mueller, and he has full faith in Trump to allow this special counsel to wrap up his investigation. “It’s a special counsel bill. It’s irrelevant to this, but it could be relevant to future ones,” he said.
This week Barr testified that his family and Mueller’s are personal friends. That and other polished verbal assurances had other Republicans who sat through the hearings crying foul on Democrats any time they were pressed.
“I get the partisan politics,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) responded to a question from VICE News in the Capitol on Wednesday about Mueller’s independence. “I stayed there the entire time yesterday, listened to every word of testimony. Give every member of the Judiciary Committee truth serum – Democrats and Republicans – and every one of them will tell you that Barr did a great job.”
Urging Mueller to speed it up
While Democrats now control the House, the party remains mostly powerless in the Senate, at least when it comes to nominees like Barr who need Senate confirmation who need Senate confirmation. That’s because the Senate has basically become the Wild West for presidential appointees of all stripes ever since former-Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively killed the filibuster while Barack Obama was president.
“If Donald Trump is a Russian agent, and Mueller has evidence of that, it doesn’t do much good for him to show us his cards in November.”
That move to do away with a 60-vote threshold for most nominees is now haunting the whole Democratic Party, as Republicans no longer have to fight for 60 supporters; they can just slide nominees through with a mere 50 GOP votes and a simple “Aye” from Vice President Mike Pence.
With no need for a single Democratic vote for nominees, the minority party in the Senate has been left scrambling to find a way to dislodge Barr. But it’s hard to find a bulwark to protect Mueller when your own party killed the one tool to protect minority rights in the Senate, i.e.,, the filibuster. It’s gone, so now Trump is mostly unimpeded in what seems, at least to Democrats, like his blatant attempt to do away with the special counsel.
That fear is why some Democrats are now echoing calls from their GOP counterparts for Mueller to release his findings ASAP. While Republicans have said that for months, some for more than a year, to force him to lay out his cards, now some Democrats are aligned with them. But for the opposite reasons.
Democrats now want Mueller to drop a partial report before Barr is seated and can legally bury whatever salacious, or even boring, findings come from the special counsel, which was only heightened by The New York Times report last week that the FBI opened an investigation into Trump for potentially being a foreign agent.
“If Donald Trump is a Russian agent and Mueller has evidence of that, it doesn’t do much good for him to show us his cards in November of this year. Right? Like, he’s got to tell us something pretty soon,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News in the Capitol. “It’s serious allegations, and you can’t bring impeachment allegations with only a few months left in a president’s term.”
Cover: Attorney general nominee William P. Barr speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC on January 15, 2018. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)