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Senate delays action on William Barr confirmation; Democrats worry about how he'll handle special counsel

Senate delays action on William Barr confirmation; Democrats worry about how he'll handle special counsel
Attorney general nominee William Barr appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 15. (Melina Mara / Washington Post)

A planned Senate Judiciary Committee vote on William Barr's nomination to serve as attorney general has been delayed for a week, as Democrats continue to raise concerns about whether he will allow special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his probe and publicize the results unimpeded.

The delay, which is customary for high-profile nominations, is not expected to impede Barr's eventual chances of being confirmed by the full Senate. But it is the latest reflection of the deep partisan tension surrounding Barr's nomination, most of which centers on Democrats' desire to protect Mueller's probe from being unduly constrained.

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The committee postponed its vote on Barr as one of 46 nominations the panel was scheduled to vote on Tuesday, but decided to delay until its next meeting.

In both his public testimony and his written answers to senators' questions, Barr has repeatedly refused to give senators any firm guarantee that he will release Mueller's report to Congress and the public free of redactions. In similar fashion, he has only promised to ask for, but not necessarily heed, the advice of the Justice Department's ethics counsel on the matter of whether he should recuse himself from oversight of the probe.

That has particularly frustrated Democrats, who take issue with a memo Barr penned last year arguing that in scrutinizing the actions of the Trump campaign, Mueller appeared to be interpreting an obstruction of justice statute too broadly. Democrats fear the memo is evidence that Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush during the early 1990s, might seek to constrain the scope of Mueller's probe.

Though Barr has said that, as a former attorney general, he often weighs in on topics of the day, he acknowledged in written answers to lawmakers that he could not recall another case in which he sent the Justice Department such a memo.

Barr's written answers also contained something that sparked bipartisan concerns about how much information he might allow Mueller to release specifically concerning Trump. In an answer to Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Barr said that "it is department policy and practice not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution."

On Tuesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pointed out that if Barr decided to follow department legal guidance that a sitting president could not be indicted — or, by extension, prosecuted — it could keep Trump out of the report entirely, even if Mueller found concerning information about him.

Panel chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) agreed that possibility was concerning.

"If you agree you can't indict the president, it's probably not a good reason not to share with us the derogatory information," Graham said, promising to pursue Barr on that point. He also pledged to ask Barr whether he would let Trump claim executive privilege to muzzle portions of the report.

As he looks to return to his previous post leading the Justice Department, Barr has met privately with more Senate Republicans than Democrats. Still, it is unclear if he could change Democrats' minds in additional meetings, as the Democrats who have met with him behind closed doors have emerged saying they were still unsatisfied with Barr's answers concerning Mueller.

But Barr doesn't need any Democratic support to be confirmed. Under rules changes that the Democratic-led Senate adopted in 2013, only a simple majority of senators' votes are needed to confirm a Cabinet nominee.

Yet the delayed Judiciary committee vote means that it will be difficult for the Senate to confirm Barr before Matthew G. Whitaker, the acting attorney general, is due on Capitol Hill on Feb. 8 to answer the House Judiciary Committee's questions about his oversight of the Mueller probe.

Karoun Demirjian writes for the Washington Post.

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