President Donald Trump's pick to take over the Justice Department will head Wednesday to Capitol Hill as he tries to win over senators skeptical of his views on executive power and the special counsel investigation that has driven the agency into a political minefield.
One week out from his scheduled confirmation hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the heels of reporting that the Justice Department's stalwart No. 2, Rod Rosenstein, is leaving, Bill Barr, a former attorney general under President George H. W. Bush, will sit down with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the current and former chairmen of the committee, according to their offices. Barr is expected to meet with more senators, including Democrats, in the coming days.
The meetings on the Hill, a routine practice for Cabinet secretary nominees, signify that an abbreviated and quiet confirmation process is coming to a head and will allow senators an opportunity to probe Barr on any number of issues, including the unusual memo he wrote last year blasting elements of the Mueller investigation, before his on-camera grilling next week.
Rosenstein's departure, which is planned for shortly after Barr's potential confirmation according to a source familiar with the deputy attorney general's thinking, will likely also thrust Barr's views on the Mueller investigation to the center of his confirmation fight.
Rosenstein himself appointed special counsel Robert Mueller in May 2017, and he maintained day-to-day management of the probe even after Trump installed Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general late last year — a move that replaced former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the investigation, and eventually shifted its oversight from Rosenstein to Whitaker.
If confirmed, Barr would then oversee the special counsel's Russia investigation, gaining briefings on its progress and likely the ability to block some investigatory steps before they are taken.
An old-guard conservative who held some of Washington's most influential legal positions, Barr's nomination last month to succeed Sessions was met with commendation by Justice Department officials and Republicans from across the ideological spectrum. Some Democrats, however, have seized on comments Barr made to newspapers last year criticizing Mueller's team of prosecutors and supporting Trump's calls for investigations into Hillary Clinton.
Key senators have also zeroed in on a memo Barr wrote in June outlining a broad vision of presidential authority and concluding that Mueller's inquiry into obstruction of justice was "fatally misconceived." The memo was sent at the time to senior Justice officials and was released as part of a questionnaire Barr submitted to the committee last month for vetting.
In a letter last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee, sent Barr a list of questions about the origin of the memo, writing, "I read your memorandum with great surprise." She has not yet received a response from Barr, her office said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, on Tuesday called the memo "deeply worrisome" and said he would seek "an ironclad commitment that he will protect the special counsel from political interference and recuse himself if he refuses to disavow the points that he made in his memorandum."
While Republicans increased their margin on the judiciary panel to two after their election wins, making it likely that Barr does not need to win the support of any Democrats to advance positively out of the committee after his hearing, two GOP members of the committee repeated their defense of the Mueller probe on Tuesday.
Graham and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis were among a bipartisan group of senators that reintroduced legislation that would protect Mueller from "inappropriate removal or political pressure." The bill passed the Judiciary Committee last Congress across party lines but was never brought up before the full Senate for a vote.
Asked about Barr's memo on Mueller, before news of Rosenstein's planned departure broke, Tillis shrugged off Democratic concerns.
"Not yet," he told reporters when asked if he has concerns. "I'll be talking to him before the hearing, and then we'll have the hearing and we'll see where it goes from there."
Other Republicans defended Barr. "He wrote that as a private citizen," Grassley said Tuesday. "What you do as a private citizen is one thing. What you do as a public citizen is another."
Next week's confirmation hearing will not be Barr's first before the Judiciary Committee, though it comes after a lengthy hiatus from government service.
As he's prepared, Barr bowed out of plans for an international hunting trip earlier this month, a friend said, and has spent his days studying with a team of DOJ lawyers at the Department of Justice in Washington, according to a Justice Department official.
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