Democrats will zero in on Mueller probe and presidential power in William Barr's attorney general hearings

  • Attorney general hopeful William Barr is scheduled to appear for confirmation hearings Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • Barr's prepared remarks appear intended to assure senators that he believes "it is vitally important" for special counsel Robert Mueller to complete his Russia probe.
  • Still, Barr is likely to receive a barrage of questions from the committee's Democratic minority picking apart his feelings about that investigation, as well as his views of presidential power.
William Barr, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be Attorney General, arrives to pay a visit to Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 10, 2019.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
William Barr, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be Attorney General, arrives to pay a visit to Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 10, 2019.

Attorney general hopeful William Barr is set Tuesday to appear for confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee — again.

The 68-year-old Barr, who was partially retired when he was tapped for the role by President Donald Trump, has already served as the top Justice Department official, nearly three decades ago, under President George H.W. Bush.

While he was unanimously approved then, Barr is expected to face a much rockier path the second time around. His past doubts about parts of special counsel Robert Mueller's authority, combined with his expansive view of presidential authority, have raised alarms among Democrats wary of Trump's threats to wield his immense power unilaterally.

Barr apparently hopes to skirt much of this scrutiny from the outset of the two-day hearings. His prepared remarks appear to show him assuring senators that "it is vitally important" for Mueller to complete his ongoing probe of Russian election interference and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

He will also promise to assert his "independence" as a public servant, placing his allegiances in "the rule of law, the Constitution, and the American people," rather than in the president.

"If confirmed, I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation," Barr's remarks say. "I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work."

Barr may hope that statement inoculates him against harsh scrutiny of a 19-page memo Barr sent to the DOJ in June, arguing that Mueller's focus on whether Trump had obstructed justice is "fatally misconceived."

Still, his kickoff is likely to be returned by a barrage of questions from the committee's Democratic minority, who are poised to pick apart Barr's feelings about both the Russia probe and the limits of the president's authorities.

Those two topics "will be a big focus of tomorrow's hearing," a spokeswoman for ranking Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told CNBC on Monday.

Barr's broad view of a president's control over the executive branch was not uncommon at the time he served in the Bush administration. Many conservatives of that era felt that the presidency had been too far diminished in the backlash from the Watergate scandal that engulfed Richard Nixon's administration.

"Barr was representing the more mainstream view at that time," said Nancy Baker, a professor emeritus of New Mexico State University who helped conduct an oral history of Barr in 2001.

But in 2019, that view has grown more controversial. Both the left and the right have decried what they have labeled executive overreach of the past two administrations. And Trump's denunciations of the Mueller probe on Twitter have raised fears among the special counsel's defenders that the president may try to quash a federal investigation in which he is a central figure.

Barr will field questions from Democrats about immigration as well, the spokeswoman said, which are likely to touch on the trench warfare being fought over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump wants more than $5 billion for a steel barrier, while Democrats refuse to provide any money for the president's proposal. Any deal to fund nine hobbled federal agencies hinges on the gridlocked negotiations surrounding the wall; as a result, the partial shutdown has now become the longest on record.

Trump has again raised Democrats' fears in the shutdown fight by threatening to bypass Congress through a national emergency declaration in order to get his wall built. He appeared to back down from those threats Monday, however, telling reporters he was not looking to call an emergency at the border at this time.

The previous permanent attorney general, Jeff Sessions, took a hard-line stance on confronting illegal immigration from the southern border. Sessions was pilloried for his "zero tolerance" policy, which resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their families.

Sessions was fired from the role by Trump in November, after enduring more than a year of scathing criticism from the president's Twitter account. Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney, has been serving as acting attorney general since Sessions was fired and has been heavily scrutinized for his past attacks on Mueller, including in a 2017 op-ed for CNN.

Democrats also plan to grill Barr on a spate of other issues, including privacy rights, criminal justice and the decades-long battle over the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade.

A spokesman for Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., did not respond to CNBC's inquiries about the confirmation hearings.

Barr is still more likely than not to be confirmed, said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who was not Senate-appointed, "gave the appearance of the president putting a partisan hack into office," said Riley, who also participated in the oral history.

Nominating Barr, a conservative Washington insider whose resume boasts experience in the CIA and the Reagan administration, "does not look like how the interim appointment looked," Riley said.