What to know about AG nominee William Barr's confirmation hearing

By Kathryn Watson

/ CBS News

William Barr and the Trump-Russia probe

Nancy Cordes and Paula Reid contributed to this article

William Barr, President Trump's pick for attorney general, faces the first day of confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning. Barr will answer to questions from Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two years ago, Jeff Sessions' confirmation hearing lasted throughout the day, until around 8 p.m., and it's likely Barr's questioning will also go on for several hours.

Barr has been studying every day since President Trump nominated him, a source familiar with his preparations told CBS News. To prepare for Tuesday's confirmation hearings, he has been working with a group of lawyers from the Office of Legal Policy. And though he's been through the confirmation process before, he held a mock hearing to practice.

Barr, Mr. Trump's pick to replace ousted former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is looking for the approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee before his nomination goes to the Senate floor for a vote. Barr has already met with a number of senators on the committee individually. He needs the approval of a simple majority of senators to be confirmed, and take the helm from Acting Attorney General Matt Whittaker.

How to watch William Barr's confirmation hearing

What to expect during the confirmation hearing

Barr will offer his testimony — he's already submitted his written remarks, which he tells senators it's "vitally important" that special counsel Robert Mueller be allowed to finish the Russia investigation. This is significant because one of the central questions surrounding Barr's nomination is how he will handle Mueller's investigation. If and when he becomes the attorney general, Barr will assume oversight of the probe from Whitaker.

"I believe it is vitally important that the Special Counsel be allowed to complete his investigation," Barr wrote in prepared testimony obtained by CBS News correspondent Paula Reid.

Democrats — and perhaps Republicans — are sure to have questions about Barr's approach to Mueller, especially since Barr has been critical of the Mueller probe in the past. Last year, Barr wrote a memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein critical of the Mueller probe. In that memo, which the New York Times obtained, Barr argued that Mr. Trump should not be forced to submit to questioning by the special counsel, because "Mueller's obstruction theory is fatally misconceived," and is based "on a novel and insupportable reading of the law."

In his written testimony, Barr told senators that his memo had been "narrow in scope" and that it addressed only "a specific obstruction-of-justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the Special Counsel might be considering." But he said that the memo in no way questioned the core investigation and did not address other obstruction theories. He wrote that his memo did not say "that a President can never obstruct justice."

Democrats are also likely to ask Barr for his opinions about weekend reports from The New York Times and Washington Post. The New York Times reported that after Mr. Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the FBI opened a counter-intelligence probe to determine whether Mr. Trump, wittingly or unwittingly, worked on behalf of the Kremlin. The Post reported that Mr. Trump went to great lengths to keep the details of his July 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin from top White House aides.

Here's a sampling of some of the lines of questioning Barr can expect tomorrow:

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told reporters that he has a list of questions for Barr:

Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, on ABC's "This Week" said he wants "ironclad assurances" of Barr's independence and willingess to let Mueller finish his probe. He also expressed concern about Barr's memo and predicted it would be the "first line of questioning" for many on the panel.

Sen Kamala Harris, D-Calif., according to a top aide, is also going to want to know whether he'd reverse some of Sessions' moves on voting rights, immigration, and reproductive rights, and whether he supports Sessions' zero tolerance immigration policy?

Former Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, according to a top aide, wants to focus on Barr's views of the False Claims Act, his willingness to implement the First Step Act, and his intention to submit to congressional oversight and protect whistleblowers.

First published on January 15, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Kathryn Watson

Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.

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