WASHINGTON — Civil rights groups, legal experts and former colleagues offered contradictory accounts of Attorney General nominee William Barr’s views and temperament during the second day of his Senate confirmation hearings – with civil rights leaders criticizing his record on racial discrimination while the head of the Fraternal Order of Police said he would be “a stellar top cop.”
“He was a general in the war on drugs that was rooted in racism,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“William Barr did not and does not recognize the racially discriminatory impact of our criminal justice system’s policies,” said Johnson, citing an exchange between Barr and Sen. Cory Book in which Barr said that “overall the system treats blacks and whites fairly.”
“This statement is singularly disqualifying,” Johnson said.
Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., responded to Johnson’s criticism by asserting that Barr had addressed the specific discriminatory effect of his work in the Reagan and first Bush administrations during his testimony.
Graham then asked Johnson why there is what he called a “disparity” between the NAACP scores of Republican and Democratic politicians.
“Will you ask yourselves why I can’t get better than 22 percent from conservatives?” Graham said, citing his own his NAACP Civil Rights Legislative Report Card score, which is indeed the highest of the Republicans on the judiciary committee.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, interrupted the contentious exchange to say that his organization took issue with Barr’s praise of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose Justice Department Johnson said “jettisoned protections for the right to vote.”
Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, endorsed Barr’s nomination on behalf of the organization, saying: “We are confident that Mr. Barr will once again be a stellar top cop.”
Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush who worked with Barr, told senators he was someone who “treated everyone with the same respect, whether they were an up-and-coming chief of police, a receptionist at the Department of Justice or an 80-year-old resident of public housing.”
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother and two cousins were killed in the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., did not support or reject the nominee. In her emotional testimony on the “loophole” in gun laws that “allowed hatred to be armed and to kill,” she urged Barr to work with Congress to “update our gun laws.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, and Graham disagreed on what Barr’s testimony on Tuesday and his memo about the Robert Mueller investigation meant for how he would handle the Mueller investigation in relation to President Donald Trump, Congress and the public.
“I think it’s essential that Congress and the American people know what is in the Mueller report,” Feinstein said. “My vote depends on that, Mr. Chairman.”
Professor Neil J. Kinkopf of Georgia State University said Barr’s definition of executive power is that “the power rests with the president, therefore, the president does not have to ask Barr to do anything,” which makes his assuraneces that he would not stop the Mueller investigation moot.
But Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said the real question “is not whether one has opinions, the issue is whether he is willing to disregard those opinions when they conflict with the duties and responsibilities of the office.”
Despite disagreement between panelists and senators alike, Kennedy believes Barr will be confirmed by the Republican-majority committee.
“And I think if you gave every member of the Judiciary Committee truth serum, they would tell you that he did a good job yesterday and he would be a good attorney general,” Kennedy said.
Morial left the hearing unconvinced.
“We’re going to be pushing hard — and we know it’s an uphill battle — to block his confirmation,” he said. “But we thought we did what we had to do to put concerns about voting rights, criminal justice and civil rights enforcement on the record here today.”