Opinion

DHILLON: Democrats Supported Barr In 1991, So Why Not In 2019?

Harmeet K. Dhillon Republican National Lawyers Association

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing to consider William Barr, President Trump’s nominee to be the next attorney general. Barr has a unique qualification to serve in that role: he has been attorney general before, and held numerous other senior positions in the Department of Justice before that. When he was just 41, a Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed him by voice vote to serve as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

At that time, he was highly praised by both Republicans and Democrats. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to recommend his confirmation.

Then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Joe Biden commended Barr’s “candid answer” on a question regarding Roe v. Wade during his committee hearing and noted that he was “a throwback to the days when we actually had attorneys general who would talk to you.” He praised him on the Senate floor: “In my view, this commitment to the public interest, above all else, is a critical attribute in an attorney general, and I will vote to confirm Mr. Barr … I look forward to working with Mr. Barr. I plan on supporting him, and I anticipate and hope that he will be a fine attorney general.”

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said he would be “an independent voice for all Americans — not just the president.  He said this in response to Democratic senators’ concerns — that he initially shared — about the attorney general being too closely aligned with the White House.

On Tuesday, Democratic senators — including Leahy, who still serves on the Judiciary Committee — took a different approach. Perhaps still reeling from the public’s disapproval of their abhorrent treatment of Brett Kavanaugh and their subsequent electoral defeats, they were largely more reasonable than they have been in questioning previous Trump nominees — meaning that they actually asked questions, only grandstanded for soundbites part of the time, did not incessantly interrupt the nominee, and attempted to mischaracterize what he said only a few times per questioner. We witnessed the adult version of what a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing can be — partisan, but on their best behavior.

All the Democrats asked in many different ways if Barr would interfere with or stop Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into attempted Russian interference with the 2016 election, even after Barr assured them in his opening statement that he had no intention of interfering with or stopping the investigation.

Sen. Mazie Hirono followed her usual mode of questioning: assuming the worst of the Barr no matter what he said, distorting what he said, mischaracterizing the law, and criticizing him for interrupting when he attempted to answer her questions or respond to her misrepresentations.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse unsuccessfully tried to gain a commitment from Barr to enforce laws governing non-profit donations as he would like them to be, instead of according to current law.

Sen. Cory Booker called efforts to reduce violent crime or discuss places where there are high crime rates “racist.”

Sen. Kamala Harris tried to play the tough prosecutor but her “gotcha” questions all fell flat in the face of Barr’s measured responses based on the law.

The Democrats’ political games collapsed in the face of Barr’s consummate professionalism, poise, and competence. As in his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, he was forthcoming, did not hesitate to say when he did not know something or would have to investigate something further, and was not afraid to articulate and defend positions that are not politically popular. He talked about how he did or would govern and what the law actually is, while the Democrats tried in vain to trick him with vague hypotheticals.

Bill Barr remains a man of unquestioned integrity and character. He does his own work, which is fairly remarkable for an attorney of his experience. When Whitehouse asked who did the citations in his June 2018 memorandum to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the Mueller investigation, Barr responded that no one helped him write the memo, and he knows how to do legal citations. (Law partners around the nation simultaneously gasped in awe.)

Barr made articulate policy arguments in addition to legal arguments. His experience with enforcing immigration law and understanding of its importance to the rule of law enabled him to articulate a coherent approach to immigration enforcement. Barr agreed with Democrats on the need for better law enforcement at ports of entry but also made clear that President Trump was right on the need for a wall and other barriers for an effective border policy. Barr clearly understood that the threat is “dynamic” and must be approached holistically. The Democrats were shocked — shocked! — that he might support a wall.

A remarkable takeaway from the hearing is that Barr does not need or even particularly want the job of attorney general. The Democrats tried to portray him as currying President Trump’s favor in order to be considered as an attorney general, but Barr explained several times that he was looking forward to retirement. He is of counsel at his law firm, meaning decreased responsibilities, and only has one client. He does not need to be attorney general to cap his long career; he has already honorably served as attorney general.

The only reason Barr accepted President Trump’s nomination is because of his commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution and the need to re-establish the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation as apolitical enforcers of the law. Bill Barr’s commitment to the public interest, recognized by Joe Biden in 1991, is what led him to sitting through eight hours of questioning from senators yesterday and facing the daunting task of continuing to restore the rule of law to the politicized Justice Department, instead of enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

That is not the profile of a man who will blindly follow the president’s instructions. Instead, as Leahy acknowledged in 1991, Bill Barr has demonstrated independence throughout his career, willing to follow the law and the Constitution in service to the American people, even if it means taking positions that are unpopular. That integrity and independence is what earned him bipartisan support in 1991, and it should earn him bipartisan support today. It is not Barr who has changed, but Senate Democrats who now put politics above all else.

Harmeet K. Dhillon (@Pnjabanis the Republican National Committeewoman from California and vice president of communications for the Republican National Lawyers Association. She is a partner at the Dhillon Law Group.


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