The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Monday that President Donald Trump’s nomination of Willam Barr to lead the Justice Department is a threat to the Russia probe.
“Under our constitutional system, no one is above the law, not even the president,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a speech on the Senate floor. “We need an attorney general willing to vigorously defend this principle.”
The Senate is expected to confirm Barr this week. If confirmed, he will oversee special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into alleged coordination between the Trump campaign and a Russian effort to swing the 2016 presidential election.
Barr will replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who took the reigns at the Justice Department after Trump fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s office.
“In November, President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions after months of public abuse over the Mueller investigation. For a temporary replacement, he chose Matt Whitaker, whose primary qualification appears to be an op-ed he wrote decrying the scope of the Mueller probe,” Warner said in his floor speech Monday.
Barr, who previously spoke with Trump about a position on the president’s legal team, sent a lengthy legal memo to the Justice Department in June that criticized aspects of the Mueller investigation.
Many Democrats see the memo as an application for the attorney general job — a sentiment Warner echoed in his speech Monday. Barr denied that allegation at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.
Under questioning from committee chair Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in January, Barr praised Mueller, whom he called a “close” friend, vowed not to interfere with the ongoing investigation, and said he would make Mueller’s final report available to Congress and the public “consistent with regulations and the law.”
Barr also told Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) at the time that he would not allow the president or his legal team to “spin” or correct Mueller’s report before releasing it to the public.
The Judiciary Committee’s vote on Barr’s nomination broke down along party lines.
In his floor speech Monday, Warner also raised concerns about Barr’s involvement in a 1992 decision by former President George H. W. Bush to pardon six defendants who were part of a scheme to trade weapons for hostages with Iran.
Warner signaled that congressional Democrats would take action if Trump issues similar pardons to defendants in the Mueller probe or a set of related investigations in the Southern District of New York.
“This president has repeatedly dangled the possibility of pardoning potential witnesses in the Special Counsel’s investigation. Now, in Mr. Barr, the President has a nominee who has been outspoken about his expansive views on the appropriate use of the pardon powers,” Warner said.
“Let’s be very clear. Any attempt by this president to pardon himself, his family, or key witnesses in the Mueller or SDNY investigations would represent an abuse of power that would require a response by Congress.”