5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump opens new line of impeachment attack for Democrats Bloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes MORE’s nominee to be attorney general, William Barr, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, for the first of two days of questioning.

Barr will replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, a controversial figure, if he is confirmed.

What were the main takeaways from his first day of testimony?

ADVERTISEMENT

Barr did no harm

Barr cleared the main hurdle for any presidential nominee: He avoided the kind of gaffe that could go viral and blow up his chances.

In fact, he never came close to losing his footing. His demeanor was calm throughout and there were none of the lurches from passivity to aggression that Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughElection 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Protesters roll out a screen playing Blasey Ford's testimony ahead of Federalist Society dinner MORE showed at his much more controversial hearings in September.

Barr, 68, showed that he is an experienced Washington hand. If confirmed, he will go on to serve his second stint as attorney general, having previously held the position a generation ago in former President George H.W. Bush’s administration. The praise bestowed on him back then by Democrats — including by then-Sen. Joe BidenJoe BidenBloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes Obama cautions 2020 hopefuls against going too far left MORE (Del.) — was cited by Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House Senators confirm Erdoğan played 'propaganda' video in White House meeting MORE (R-Texas) on Tuesday. 

Barr remained calm throughout the hearing even under sharp questioning from Democrats on the panel.

He needs only a simple majority in a vote of the full Senate, meaning that he should sail to confirmation unless he loses the support of four GOP senators. The chances of that happening seemed vanishingly small Tuesday evening. In 1991, Barr was confirmed by unanimous vote by the Judiciary Committee and later voice vote on the Senate floor. 

Trump won’t like all his answers

If the televisions were on in the White House during Barr’s first day of testimony, Trump would have been irked by several of the answers from his nominee.

Although Barr noted his expansive view of presidential power at several points during the hearing, his language about the FBI, special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE and other controversial topics bore almost no resemblance to Trump’s.

ADVERTISEMENT

Barr, as expected, made it plain that he believes Mueller should be able to complete his work. More notably, he said he had confidence in the special counsel when he was first appointed and added, “I still have that confidence today.”

While Trump has repeatedly said the Mueller probe is “a witch hunt,” Barr told senators he doesn’t agree with that line of thinking and indicated he respects Mueller.

Trump thrice accused Mueller of having conflicts of interest on Twitter last month, and separately alleged that the special counsel is “a much different man than people think.” 

Asked about Russia by Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Trump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges Senators press NSA official over shuttered phone surveillance program MORE (R-Neb.), Barr said he had “no reason to doubt the Russians attempted to interfere in our election” — a clearer judgment than Trump is prone to offer.

At times, Barr certainly placed careful caveats around his views. 

For example, in exchanges with Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenators introduce bipartisan bill restricting police use of facial recognition tech Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Bill Gates visits Capitol to discuss climate change with new Senate caucus MORE (D-Del.), Barr said he would be enormously reluctant to fire Mueller at Trump’s behest — unless Trump was justified in doing so.

“Assuming there was no good cause,” he said, “I would not carry out that instruction.”

Caveats will concern Dems

Barr’s answers will not fully allay Democratic fears about some form of meddling with the Mueller investigation. The exchanges with Coons included an admission from Barr that “there is the possibility” that he would overrule Mueller on points of contention.

Barr notably did not commit to releasing Mueller’s full report, arguing that it could include details that could not be put into the public sphere.

“I will commit to providing as much information as I can, consistent with the regulations,” he told Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

In other exchanges with Blumenthal, Barr left considerable leeway around whether he would protest if the president fired U.S. prosecutors in other cases.

“I would not stand by and allow an investigation to be stopped if I thought it was a lawful investigation,” he said, “but the president is free to fire the officials he’s appointed.”

That leaves a lot of wiggle room for Barr — more than enough to disconcert Democrats and other Trump critics.

Harris shines among 2020 hopefuls

The dynamics of the 2020 presidential race are already hitting Capitol Hill, almost two years before the election will take place.

At least three of the Democrats on Tuesday’s panel are potential candidates for their party’s nomination: Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump to hold campaign rally in Florida later this month Overnight Health Care: Warren promises gradual move to 'Medicare for All' | Rivals dismiss Warren plan for first 100 days | White House unveils rules on disclosing hospital prices | Planned Parenthood wins case against anti-abortion group Harris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires MORE (Calif.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOvernight Health Care: Warren promises gradual move to 'Medicare for All' | Rivals dismiss Warren plan for first 100 days | White House unveils rules on disclosing hospital prices | Planned Parenthood wins case against anti-abortion group Election 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy Democratic senators introduce bill to block funding for border wall live stream MORE (N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharElection 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Hillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day MORE (Minn.).

Harris did herself the most good, her prosecutorial skills being deployed to sharp effect as they have been in previous hearings with attorney general nominee Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Sessions vows to 'work for' Trump endorsement Sanford: 'It carries real weight' to speak against Trump 'while in office' MORE, among others. Harris is a former San Francisco district attorney and was California’s attorney general before being elected to the Senate.

She broadened out the questioning from the Mueller probe to encompass disparate subjects such as Barr’s support for a border wall and his views on a war on drugs that Harris characterized as an “abject failure.”

Booker also took a different tack, talking about racial inequities in sentencing. But he did so in a more ponderous way than Harris’s rapid-fire style.

Klobuchar raised issues of ethics and recusal with Barr, but never really knocked him off his stride in doing so.

A star turn for Barr’s grandson

Barr’s 8-year-old grandson Liam Daly got plenty of attention from lawmakers and the media as he sat supporting his grandfather. 

The ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHarris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires Senate Democrats introduce Violence Against Women Act after bipartisan talks break down Harris shares video addressing staffers the night Trump was elected: 'This is some s---' MORE (Calif.), even handed down a care package for the young boy, while various senators made gently humorous suggestions about his future career path.

The attention given to Daly was perhaps evidence that the hearing delivered no bombshell news. But his star turn was capped when a Reuters photographer zoomed in on a note he had written for his grandfather.

“Dear grandpa, I love you so much. You are doing great so far,” the note began.