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.
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 Most importantly, Barr said Mueller’s final report might not be published.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.
Below, more on William Barr:
- “Wrong answer”: The American Civil Liberties Union slammed Barr’s stance on jailing journalists. “Wrong answer,” it wrote on Twitter. “The freedom of the press is a bedrock democratic principle. Under no circumstance should the government put journalists in jail for doing their job.”
- A prior offer: The attorney general offer wasn’t the first White House overture to Barr. Shortly after Trump named his pick, Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman reported that Trumpworld previously approached Barr about being the president’s defense lawyer.
- More on the memo: While the Journal suggested in December that Trump did not know about Barr’s Mueller memo prior to picking him, CNN’s Ariane de Vogue yesterday reported that Barr had circulated the memo widely among Trump’s lawyers.
- Lock her up? Barr yesterday sought to explain comments he made to the Times in 2017 suggesting that the so-called Uranium One allegations against Hillary Clinton were more substantial than the Trump–Russia collusion probe. As the Post’s Aaron Blake notes, “This was especially significant because the Uranium One claims have largely been dismissed as conspiracy theories.”
Other notable stories:
- The UK is braced for more Brexit uncertainty after lawmakers yesterday voted down the deal Prime Minister Theresa May struck with European Union leaders. While the setback was expected, its crushing margin—unprecedented for any government in the modern era—surprised even skeptical political commentators. May will today face a Parliamentary vote of no confidence, which she should win. What will happen after that? Your guess is as good as mine, but as things stand, Britain will be out without a deal on March 29.
- Fallout continues from last week’s Times interview with Representative Steve King, in which the hard-right Iowa Republican regretted that being a “white nationalist” or “white supremacist” has “become offensive.” For HuffPost yesterday, Yashar Ali revealed that NBC News told staff not to call King’s remarks “racist”; following a sharp backlash, the network did a U-turn. In Iowa, meanwhile, the editorial boards of the Des Moines Register and King’s local paper, the Sioux City Journal, said he should resign from Congress.
- Adam Moss is stepping down as editor of New York magazine after 15 years in the role, during which he reshaped the magazine and oversaw its online expansion into popular verticals like Vulture and The Cut. “I don’t wake up obsessed every morning, and I used to,” Moss told the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum. “And I think, actually, you kind of need to be obsessed.” Town & Country weighs the runners and riders to replace him.
- CJR’s Mathew Ingram reports that Facebook will inject $300 million over three years into different journalism projects, including a bevy of non-profits focused on local news. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news, assures Ingram that the cash comes with no strings attached. Today in CJR, James Ball argues that “no, tech companies shouldn’t fund journalism.”
- Digital First Media’s bid for Gannett could preclude the latter company from buying Gizmodo Media Group even though it’s “one of a few serious bidders remaining,” the Journal’s Cara Lombardo, Benjamin Mullin, and Lukas I. Alpert report. Bryan Goldberg, who owns Gawker’s assets and Bustle (which acquired Mic in November after that company laid off virtually its whole staff), is also interested in Gizmodo.
- Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator for Missouri, has joined NBC and MSNBC as a contributor. She made her debut on Morning Joe yesterday. In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote that John Kasich, the Republican former governor of Ohio, was also on the network’s radar, but he joined CNN instead. And over at CBS, Kirsten Gillibrand went on Colbert last night to launch her bid for the White House.
- Tulsi Gabbard, the controversial Hawaii Democrat, announced her own presidential ambitions last week. The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Kelly Weill write that Gabbard’s unorthodox politics (see: meeting with Bashar al-Assad) and willingness to criticize the Democratic Party (see: telling then-President Barack Obama that he should use the term “radical Islamic terrorism”) have made her an unlikely darling of right-wing media.
- For CJR, Laura Dattaro profiles Sara Peach, a senior editor at Yale Climate Connections who writes an advice column responding to readers’ concerns about the local effects of climate change.
- And a staffer at a German newspaper was grabbed by the throat after she confronted a group of far-right activists outside its Berlin offices, the AP reports. ICYMI, I wrote yesterday about spiraling physical violence against journalists in neighboring France.