WASHINGTON (CN) – William Barr got a step closer to confirmation as U.S. attorney general on Thursday morning with a 12-10 endorsement from the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines.
A former attorney general under President George H. W. Bush, Barr is slated to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump forced to resign in November following the midterm elections.
When Sessions still led the Justice Department in June, under routine barrage by Trump over his recusal from investigations involving the Trump campaign, Barr sent an unsolicited memo that criticized the tack he gathered Special Counsel Mueller was taking.
Multiple senators pressed Barr about his views on Mueller when the nominee spent a day before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.
Today, Democrats said Barr’s memo raises concerns about his ability to fairly oversee the Mueller probe. They also criticized Barr’s views on executive power and his unwillingness to make certain commitments about the investigation during his hearing.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called the memo “disqualifying” and its underlying legal argument “stunning.”
“To argue that the president has not check on his authority flies in the face of our constitutional principles of checks and balances,” said Feinstein, a California Democrat.
During his nomination hearing, Barr spoke highly of Mueller as a person, but did not commit to recusing himself from issues related to the probe. Barr told Senator Pat Leahy, D-Vt., that he could not see a circumstance in which Mueller would be fired, given agency regulations that require he only be let go for cause.
“Bob could only be terminated for good cause and it’s unimaginable to me that Bob would do anything that would give rise to that good cause,” Barr said at his nomination hearing, referring informally to Mueller.
Barr told Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., in response to written questions submitted after his nomination hearing that he would resign if Trump ordered him to fire Mueller without good cause. He also promised to follow the agency’s regulations on special-counsel appointments “scrupulously and in good faith.”
Many of the Democrats who opposed Barr said Thursday he was qualified for the position, but that investigations into Trump, coupled with Barr’s views on executive power, mean he should not be confirmed.
“This is not the time to install an attorney general who has repeatedly espoused a view of unfettered executive power,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, defended Barr, saying he will bring much-needed leadership to the Justice Department.
“I think we need a steady hand at the Department of Justice, and I believe he provides that steady hand,” Graham said. “That’s not based on what I believe, it’s based on his experience.”
Barr will now go before the full Senate, which must confirm him before he takes the position. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Senate would take up Barr’s nomination in the near future.
Barr’s approval comes on the eve of a highly anticipated hearing of the House Judiciary Committee featuring testimony from Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. The committee took a vote Thursday authorizing Representative Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., to issue a subpoena that would compel Whitaker to answer lawmakers’ questions during the hearing.
Whitaker has balked at the prospect of a subpoena, however, and the Justice Department sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee Thursday stating Whitaker will not testify unless he is promised a subpoena will not be used to force him to answer questions.
CNN reported Thursday the Justice Department put a 6 p.m. deadline for the committee to make such assurances.