5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony

President TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate 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 KavanaughOvernight Health Care: US coronavirus deaths hit 200,000 | Ginsburg's death puts future of ObamaCare at risk | Federal panel delays vote on initial COVID-19 vaccine distribution Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot Trump says he'll make Supreme Court pick on Saturday 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 BidenOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate Trump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' MORE (Del.) — was cited by Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump argues full Supreme Court needed to settle potential election disputes Press: Notorious RBG vs Notorious GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy 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) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 SasseGovernment watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Chamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection Ben Sasse is mistaken with idea for the election of senators in America 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 CoonsMurkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates 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 HarrisButtigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice First presidential debate to cover coronavirus, Supreme Court Harris joins women's voter mobilization event also featuring Pelosi, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda MORE (Calif.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death DHS opens probe into allegations at Georgia ICE facility Democratic lawmakers call for an investigation into allegations of medical neglect at Georgia ICE facility MORE (N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSocial media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates 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 SessionsGOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez call for convention to decide Puerto Rico status 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 FeinsteinBiden leads Trump by 12 points among Catholic voters: poll Names to watch as Trump picks Ginsburg replacement on Supreme Court McConnell says Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg will get Senate vote 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.