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Could Trump’s Attorney General Pick William Barr Be “Worse Than Jeff Sessions” on Civil Rights?

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Senate confirmation hearings began Tuesday for William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions. Barr served as attorney general for George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. During that time, he was involved in the pardon of six Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal and oversaw the opening of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, which was initially used to indefinitely detain Haitian asylum seekers. Barr also openly backed mass incarceration at home and helped develop a secret Drug Enforcement Administration program which became a “blueprint” for the National Security Agency’s mass phone surveillance effort. But on Tuesday, senators asked few questions about Barr’s past record while focusing heavily on his views about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. We look at Barr’s history with David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. His recent article for the ACLU is titled “No Relief: William Barr Is as Bad as Jeff Sessions—if Not Worse.” We also speak with Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Senate confirmation hearings began Tuesday for William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions, who was fired in November. Barr served as attorney general for George H.W. Bush from '91 to ’93. During that time, he was involved in the pardon of six Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal and oversaw the opening of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, which was initially used to indefinitely detain Haitian asylum seekers from Haiti. Barr also openly backed mass incarceration at home and helped develop a secret Drug Enforcement Administration program which became a “blueprint” for the National Security Agency's mass phone surveillance effort. He went on to work as general counsel for Verizon.

But on Tuesday, senators asked few questions about Barr’s past record, while focusing heavily on his views about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Barr vowed to allow Mueller to complete his probe.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: When is your Jim Mattis moment, when the president has asked you to do something which you think is inconsistent with your oath? Doesn’t that give you some pause as you embark on this journey?

WILLIAM BARR: It might give me pause if I was 45 or 50 years old, but it doesn’t give me pause right now, because I had a very good life—I have a very good life. I love it. But I also want to help in this circumstance, and I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong. And I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Dick Durbin questioning William Barr. Now let’s go back to William Barr.

WILLIAM BARR: I believe it is in the best interest of everyone—the president, Congress and the American people—that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work. The country needs a credible resolution to these issues. And if confirmed, I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation. I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith. And on my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work.

AMY GOODMAN: While attorney general nominee William Barr vowed to let the Mueller probe continue, he didn’t promise to make Mueller’s report public. He also defended writing an unsolicited memo last year to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in which he criticized Mueller’s investigation. Attorney general nominee William Barr was also asked about President Trump’s call to build a wall along the southern border.

WILLIAM BARR: As been pointed out earlier, it is the major avenue by which drugs come into the country. Heroin, fentanyl, all the serious drugs are coming across that border. And again, I feel it is a critical part of border security that we need to have barriers on the border. We need a barrier system on the border to get control over the border.

AMY GOODMAN: During his confirmation hearing, William Barr was also asked about press freedom by Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: My dad was a reporter, so I grew up knowing the importance of a free press. We obviously have the tragic case of a journalist who worked right here at The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, and it’s of particular concern. So, I want to ask you something I asked Attorney General Sessions: If you’re confirmed, will the Justice Department jail reporters for doing their jobs?

WILLIAM BARR: I think that—you know, I know there are guidelines in place. And I can conceive of situations where, you know, as a last resort and where a news organization has run through a red flag or something like that, knows that they’re putting out stuff that will hurt the country, there might be a—there could be a situation where someone would be held in contempt.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about William Barr’s confirmation hearing, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Kristen Clarke is with us, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Here in New York, David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University Law Center. His recent article for the ACLU is headlined “No Relief: William Barr Is as Bad as Jeff Sessions—if Not Worse.”

Let’s begin with you, David Cole. Did these hearings confirm your conclusion for them—about that?

DAVID COLE: Well, it certainly didn’t negate our concerns. This is somebody who has a long record. A day of telling senators what they want to hear doesn’t refute the long record. And that long record includes arguing that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, the most important right for women across this country.

AMY GOODMAN: When did he argue that?

DAVID COLE: 1991, when he was up for his first attorney general proceeding. He defended President Trump’s Muslim ban.

He praised—he pushed for, as attorney general, more incarceration. When people were criticizing the system of mass incarceration, he put out a report called “The Case for More Incarceration.” He said, “The truth is, we need to lock up more people, not fewer.” And he hasn’t—he said in the hearings yesterday that his views have evolved, but there’s no evidence of that. He has praised all of what Jeff Sessions did on criminal justice reform, which was to essentially reverse the efforts of Eric Holder and the Obama administration to try to reduce the harshness of the criminal justice system. He, Barr, opposed sentencing reform that would reduce the harshness of federal criminal sentences.

On national security and surveillance, as you indicated in the opening, he introduced what was essentially the blueprint for the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records—at that point focused on drug enforcement, but still focused on massive numbers of people with no suspicion. He argued there’s no constitutional objection to doing that.

And, of course, he has an extraordinarily broad understanding of executive power. And so, while he says, “I’m not going to improperly interfere with the Mueller investigation; you know, I will scrupulously follow the regulations,” the key is, when he says executive privilege or executive power has been interfered with by what Mueller has done, then he can say, “Well, I’m not now improperly interfering with the investigation; I’m doing it on the basis of my view of executive power.” And he has an expansive view of executive power. So I think there are grave concerns about this nominee.

AMY GOODMAN: And why worse than Sessions?

DAVID COLE: Worse than Sessions, you know, that’s hard. It’s a low bar, worse than Sessions, right? But worse than Sessions in this sense: He’s probably a better administrator of the Justice Department than Jeff Sessions. Jeff Sessions started out as a lawyer but spent his entire career basically as a politician, not as an administrator of the Justice Department. Bill Barr has been a lawyer his entire career, has already been the attorney general of the United States, knows how that system works, and, I think, will be very effective at using that system to advance the anti-civil rights agenda of this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: And his saying, “Yeah, no, I’m going to let this continue, the Mueller probe continue.” In fact, he said, you know, “The Muellers and the Barrs are close friends, and we go way back.” But this issue of rewriting the report?

DAVID COLE: Yeah. So, the report—technically, the special counsel’s report, under the statute, goes to the Justice Department, not to Congress, not to the American people. And then the Justice Department reviews it, and if there is privileged material in it, it will excise that material and then issue something to the American public. But, of course, what the American public sees, what we see, will depend on the expansiveness of whoever is in that office, their view of executive privilege. And he has very, very broad views of executive privilege.

So I think you might see a report that is essentially one of those—like one of those Freedom of Information Act documents where, you know, half of the page is blocked out, and then there’s a sentence, and then the next half of the page is blocked out. And so, you know, we’ll see. But when you’re putting somebody in this office who has a very, very broad view of executive privilege, and it’s going to be his job to say what the American public can know about this report, very, very troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interesting moment with Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas questioning William Barr.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Thinking back to James Comey’s press conference of July the 7th, 2016, where he took the step of talking about the evidence against Mrs. Clinton, talking about the legal standard that would apply as to whether she might or might not be indicted for committing a crime under the Espionage Act, have you ever seen a situation where an FBI director would usurp the authority of the Department of Justice to make that charging decision, and hold a press conference and talk about all of the derogatory information that the investigation had gleaned against a potential defendant, and then say, “Now, we’re not going to—no reasonable prosecutor would indict her”? Have you ever seen anything like that happen before?

WILLIAM BARR: No, I’ve never seen that, and I thought it was a little bit—more than a little bit. It was weird at the time. … Jim Comey is a—as I’ve said, is an extremely gifted man who’s served the country with distinction in many roles. But I thought that, to the extent he actually announced a decision, was wrong. And the other thing is, if you’re not going to indict someone, then you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person. That’s not the way the Department of Justice does business.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Kristen Clarke into this conversation, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Kristen, this interesting conversation, a lot of Democrats might have been saying, “Oh, that’s Senator Cornyn saying it was very inappropriate for Comey to announce that he was investigating Hillary Clinton.” But I think the overall message from this, when Barr was saying, yes, it was inappropriate and that he shouldn’t have made this public, that if there aren’t charges, you don’t unload information. Is he saying the same thing about Mueller’s probe, if he doesn’t bring charges against the president of the United States?

KRISTEN CLARKE: No, it’s unclear. But I will say, from having been in the room for the hearing for the duration of the day, that many of the senators, I think, went to great lengths to understand how Mr. Barr would handle this investigation, if he is confirmed at the end of the day. And I think that the verdict is out. He did express some bare commitment to allowing Mr. Mueller to see his investigation through. But whether there would be a change in the rules or policies that ultimately prohibit Barr from disclosing the contents of the report to the public, and whether he would resist efforts to, you know, mask or fail to disclose to the public the contents of Mr. Mueller’s report, I think, remains to be seen.

That said, I do think that one of the most important areas for the Senate to probe here is Mr. Barr’s civil rights record. As we’ve talked about, what we have is his record and what he did during his former tenure as attorney general. And one of the starkest things that stands out is, indeed, this book, this kind of government bible, if you will, that laid bare the framework for mass incarceration in our country. The report is called “The Case for More Incarceration.” And there, Barr unabashedly made the case for mass prison construction. He talked about how to fund mass prison construction. He endorses harsh sentences. And even since he’s left the attorney general, we’ve seen consistency in his approach when it comes to race and criminal justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to this very point. It was when the New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker was questioning William Barr.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: During your previous tenure as attorney general, you literally wrote the book on mass incarceration, or at least wrote this report, “The Case for More Incarceration.” You argued that we, as a nation, were, quote, “incarcerating too few criminals.”

WILLIAM BARR: In those days.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: And that the solution was more incarceration for more people.

WILLIAM BARR: Excuse me.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Please, sir.

WILLIAM BARR: For chronic violent offenders and gun offenders.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, I mean, that’s the challenge, sir. And you argued against the bipartisan legislation in 2015 quite strenuously.

WILLIAM BARR: I did?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: And—but that’s not the—that’s not the nature of incarceration in this country. In fiscal year 2016, only 7.7 percent of the federal prison population was convicted of violent crimes. Overwhelmingly, what was initiated in those times that led to an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population, overwhelmingly, that was nonviolent drug offenders. Right now, our federal prison population is overwhelmingly nonviolent; 47.5 percent of the federal prison population are incarcerated for drug offenses. And I guess hearing your arguments then and hearing your arguments against the bipartisan legislation that we brought out of the committee in 2016—

WILLIAM BARR: But, Senator, I think that’s wrong, what you just said. OK? I think when you have violent gangs in the city killing people, murder and so forth and so on, sometimes the most readily provable charge is their drug trafficking offenses, rather than proving culpability of the whole gang for murder. So you can take out—you can take out a gang on drug offenses, and you could be taking out a lot of violent offenders. Do you think that the murders in Chicago are—they’re related to gangs, including gangs involved in moving drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: William Barr being questioned by Senator Booker. Kristen Clarke?

KRISTEN CLARKE: You know, there is an encouraging bipartisan movement underway for criminal justice reform in our country. And William Barr is an outlier, when you think about efforts now underway to reform our criminal justice system. His ideas, his way of thinking are outdated. They’re from a bygone era.

And what I was looking for yesterday was for Mr. Barr to unequivocally disavow the views outlined in that 1992 report, the cost—the call for more incarceration. I was looking for him to distance himself from his work with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, where he advocated for more tougher sentences and for more prison construction. I was looking for him to distance himself from the work that he did in Virginia, where he worked to abolish parole. I was looking for him to distance himself from an op-ed that he wrote recently in The Washington Post where he condemned efforts under President Obama to address the need for policing reform in our country.

I think, with William Barr, we’re going to get somebody who will only wreak further havoc when it comes to criminal justice reform. We talked about what happened during Sessions’ tenure and all of the ways in which Sessions worked to reverse the course of progress that we’ve made when it comes to criminal justice. He issued a directive instructing prosecutors to impose harsh sentences. He reversed the directive that would have phased out the use of private prisons. And I fear that, with Barr, we will see this Justice Department doubling down in ways that will cause great harm to communities, but especially to communities of color.

You know, yesterday marked the 90th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. And by no means are these ordinary times in our country. We’ve seen congressional leaders having to take the extraordinary step of issuing a resolution to condemn white supremacy in the country, because we have a sitting member of Congress who espouses views and seems to embrace white nationalism. We’re dealing with hate crimes. We’re dealing with the police shooting crisis. We need an attorney general who will not stay the course but will come in and undo all the damage that occurred during the Sessions era, and, most importantly, confront all of the grave civil rights and racial justice problems that we’re confronting in the country right now. And I’m not sure that William Barr is the one up for that most important task.

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