Attorney General William Barr will attend a closed-door Senate Republican lunch next week as Congress shifts its focus to an upcoming debate on expiring surveillance programs.
A source familiar with the planning confirmed that Barr will attend the Tuesday caucus lunch.
The normally hourlong meeting will give Barr his first face-to-face with most GOP senators since the Justice Department sparked a political firestorm earlier this month with its handling of the case into Trump associate Roger Stone.
But the source noted that Barr was invited, and accepted the invitation, weeks ago — before the current scandal. The topic of discussion is expected to be the upcoming debate over surveillance program reauthorizations. Lawmakers have a mid-March deadline to extend expiring surveillance authorities under the USA Freedom Act.
“Reauthorization of these certain programs is a priority for both Leader [Mitch] McConnell and AG Barr,” the source added.
The sunset provisions include a controversial records program, known as Section 215, that gathers metadata on domestic text messages and phone calls. The Trump administration has urged Congress to reauthorize the program even though the National Security Agency shuttered it, with the White House arguing the authority should be retained in case it’s needed at a later date.
A senior Justice Department official confirmed that Barr will attend the lunch and that the topic is expected to be the surveillance programs.
The meeting will come as Barr found himself in the middle of a days-long scandal starting with the Justice Department’s decision to overrule frontline prosecutors and ask for a “far less” sentence for Stone, who was ultimately sentenced this week to 40 months in prison.
The decision to ask for a lesser sentence came after President Trump publicly expressed frustration with the original seven- to nine-year sentence recommendation.
Barr said during an interview with ABC News that he had already made a decision to intervene in the original sentence before Trump’s statement, adding that the president’s tweets on Justice Department business made it “impossible” for him to do his job.
The comments, and broader handling of the Stone case, have earned Barr criticism from Democrats, who argue the decision to ask for a lesser sentence hints at political favoritism, and some Republicans, who are critical of Barr’s remarks toward Trump.
But Republicans have largely rallied behind Barr, sending public warning shots to Trump, or others in the administration, who could try to force him out amid public tension between the Justice Department and the White House.
McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) praised Barr in a rare joint statement earlier this week as a “man of the highest character and unquestionable integrity.”
“Suggestions from outside groups that the Attorney General has fallen short of the responsibilities of his office are unfounded. The Attorney General has shown that he is committed without qualification to securing equal justice under law for all Americans,” they said.
They added that they expect “that, as always, efforts to intimidate the Attorney General will fall woefully short.”
The Justice Department’s reversal on Stone’s sentencing came just before two other controversial decisions regarding former national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
The New York Times reported late last week that Barr had taken the unusual step of asking outside prosecutors to review the criminal case against Flynn.
Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. informed McCabe’s counsel on Friday that they will no longer seek criminal charges against him, closing a high-profile case against the former official whose conduct during the 2016 election was scrutinized.