The Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr got off to a relatively humorous start today (Jan. 16)—that is, if you appreciate legal humor.
Although the role Barr’s being considered for is extremely serious, he is an attorney in a room full of lawyers all asking questions about the legal positions that he’d take as head of the US Department of Justice.
And the counselors do seem to be having a bit of fun.
The first questioner this morning was Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who asked Barr to list all the people who helped him write with his controversial unsolicited 2017 memo arguing that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 US election was illegal. Whitehouse noted that lawyers at Barr’s advanced level rarely do their own research, writing, and citing.
“I like to have some fun in life,” Barr quipped, confessing to having done all the work himself, including legal citations.
This set the tone for a day of legal joviality. The uncharacteristically relaxed-looking and now-bearded Texas Republican Ted Cruz, once a bellowing Tea Party speechifier, smiled through his silver-tinged hipster facial hair as he continually emphasized the importance of non-partisanship and devotion to the rule of law in the office of the attorney general. Cruz appears to be experiencing the “Beto effect.” Although the senator defeated former punk rocker Beto O’Rourke in his run for re-election in November, he seems to have picked up some tips from his opponent—like how to act and look more cool while also embracing authenticity.
When former judge and attorney general Michael Mukasey—who had the job Barr now seeks between 2007 and 2009 under president George W. Bush, referred to Barr as “a law nerd,” saying, “that’s what he enjoys”—he hastened to reassure the senate judiciary committee that this nerdy quality is a good thing. Cruz, looking amused, chimed in knowingly, “This committee won’t criticize law nerds. We attract them.”
On this note, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal asked Mukasey what he thinks of Trump’s public attacks on the judiciary. Does he believe Barr should stand up for the law if confirmed? Mukasey called Trump’s criticism of judges “extremely unwise” and said he should pay “a political price” for his wrangling with this branch of government. But he noted that there have always been tensions between the branches, more or less “civilly expressed” and said he doesn’t think Barr will publicly voice criticism of the president although he does identify deeply with the DOJ and will ensure the rule of law is respected within the department.
Meanwhile, Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for president George H.W. Bush—under whom Barr served as AG from 1991 to 1993—sought to reassure the committee that Barr is more than just a law nerd. In her words, he also has a “compassionate side,” which she best saw expressed on an impromptu visit to the Harris County Jail in Texas one day, where he spoke to the incarcerated about everything from their crimes and conditions to what was on the lunch menu. Cary expressed admiration for Barr’s dedication to the law, as exemplified by the fact that his three daughters have followed their father’s footsteps into the field, but said he also understands the people affected by the legal system, including victims and the convicted.
Finally, Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware joined in on the inside jokes, even if only to dismiss them, saying, “I don’t want to get into a wonderful law nerd fight” about gun-purchasing legislation. It was clear, however, that he really wouldn’t have minded much.
This was a rare day of mutual understanding for lawyers on both sides of the political aisle.