‘Questions and loopholes remain’ after Barr hearing

When Donald Trump tapped William Barr to be his next attorney general in early December, his pick was widely received as a lawyer’s lawyer and a safe pair of hands. Media coverage buttressed Barr’s profile: it highlighted his experience as attorney general under George H.W. Bush, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact he wasn’t Matt Whitaker, Trump’s acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions’s departure. Whitaker faced aggressive reporting on his private business dealings, lack of experience, and open public hostility to Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Below the more favorable topline impression of Barr, however, questions lingered over his own views on the investigations. Just before the holidays, The Wall Street Journal published an important story on Barr’s own Mueller skepticism, reporting that prior to his nomination, Barr sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department “excoriating” the obstruction component of Mueller’s inquiry as “fatally misconceived.”

On the first day of his confirmation hearing yesterday, lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Barr on the memo, and what approach he would take to the Mueller probe more generally. Barr repeatedly stressed that he would let the investigation wrap up and resist any pressure to try and stop him: his age and experience, he insisted, gave him no incentive to shill for Trump, while his repeated references to Mueller as “Bob” underscored the pair’s personal friendship. By the end of the day, the William Barr making headlines was again an independent-minded Justice Department stalwart. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank said Barr’s confirmation hearing doubled as “Mueller’s affirmation hearing.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said Barr was “crystal clear” in his support of the special counsel. And on the same network, Chris Cuomo said Barr’s “rigid independence,” and promise to resign should he be compromised, tipped the balance of his hearing in the “bad for Trump” direction. It looked like the press was back to square one with Barr.

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Once again, however, a more complicated picture lurked below many outlets’ and commentators’ top takeaways: as CNN’s Marshall Cohen put it “questions and loopholes remain.” Most importantly, Barr said Mueller’s final report might not be published. While he did say he would aim to provide “as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” he also supported the precedent that a sitting president cannot be indicted, adding that “If you’re not going to indict someone, then you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person. That’s not the way the Department of Justice does business.”

Beyond his headline Mueller pronouncements, meanwhile, Barr presented intriguing—and sometimes concerning—positions on his other pending responsibilities. Press-freedom advocates focused on Barr’s refusal to rule out jailing journalists should they “run through a red flag” and publish material “that will hurt the country.” And other key talking points got buried, too, such as Barr’s effective support for Trump on a border wall, pledge to reverse a hostile Jeff Sessions-era stance on marijuana, and partial walkback of some of his past, tough crime rhetoric.

As of this morning, Barr’s hearing as a whole has slipped down the news cycle—at least compared to saturated previous coverage of the officials overseeing Mueller. Perhaps that’s because other important issues, like the shutdown and Brexit, deserve greater prominence; perhaps it’s because the near-certainty that Barr will be confirmed relieved some of the tension in the story. Either way, Barr’s new Trump-era incarnation remains something of a mystery. Qualified or not, he’ll demand just as much scrutiny as Sessions and Whitaker going forward.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.