According to William Barr, the answer is obvious — but not what Senate Democrats want to hear. The nominee for Attorney General returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning to continue his confirmation hearing after making a good impression on his first day. Despite all of his pledges of support for Robert Mueller and the special counsel investigation, though, Democrats wanted a pledge that Barr would publish Mueller’s final report in full. And they didn’t quite get it:
In a chippy back-and-forth with Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Barr cast doubt on the notion that Mueller’s report might be made public.
“The rules I think say the special counsel will prepare a summary report on any prosecutive or declination decisions, and that shall be confidential and be treated as any other declination or prosecutive material within the department,” Barr said.
Declination memos are written by Justice Department officials when they decline to file charges against individuals, essentially ending an investigation.
There is a sense of petard-hosting here. During the hearing, as the Washington Post reports, Barr criticized former FBI director James Comey for violating these regulations and policies. Senate Democrats and Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time and vocal effort blaming Comey for Clinton’s 2016 loss by detailing her violations in the e-mail scandal while declining to recommend prosecution. The proper form, as Democrats noted at the time and afterward, would have just been to note the declination and pass the information confidentially back to the Department of Justice.
Republicans largely defended Comey’s decision to make a detailed statement in July 2016, so there are petards aplenty in this instance. They argued that the appearance of a gross conflict of interest after then-AG Loretta Lynch met with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac while the FBI finished up its probe made a full accounting necessary. If Jeff Sessions (who was part of the Trump campaign) was still AG when Mueller finishes his report, then the same point could be made in this case. With Sessions out, though, the argument is no longer analogous.
Barr did allow for some leeway in the disclosure decision:
Barr said the attorney general is responsible for notifying Congress and reporting “certain information” once the investigation ends, and he sought to assure lawmakers that he would be as transparent as regulations allow. “It’s really important to let the chips fall where they may and get the information out,” he said.
Don’t forget that Mueller’s report might not have much in the way of juicy details anyway. It’s not just Barr who’s bound by those Department of Justice regulations and policies on information releases; the special counsel is as well, by statute. If Mueller follows DoJ policies and regulations on disclosure, especially on declination decisions, then Barr won’t have much to share with Congress in the first place. In that case, absent indictments against Donald Trump (which would speak for themselves), this becomes a moot question.
As conflicts go, this was about as low-key as it gets, especially in confirmation hearings these days. The Washington Post seems very intrigued by it as will much of the rest of the media for reasons of self-interest, but for most people it’s barely a hiccup after seeing the Brett Kavanaugh fight. The fact that this is the biggest conflict from Barr’s first day in the center ring of the circus demonstrates just how well it went. Barr pre-empted attacks over Mueller and kept a cool head, dumping cold water on any fireworks that Trump’s opponents might have planned.
Just how smoothly did it go? Here’s a prediction of an easy confirmation from someone who seems attuned to dogmas living loudly within other nominees. Prediction: Barr gets 70 votes for confirmation in the full Senate.