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Attorney General Nominee William Barr Confirmation Hearing; U.K. Parliament Deciding on Theresa May's Brexit Plan. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired January 15, 2019 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] SEN. MIKE LEE, (R), UTAH: So will you commit to me, Mr. Barr, that you will appoint people to that independent review commission who are honest brokers to decide which offenders should be eligible and which programs should be eligible to participate?

BARR: Yes, senator.

LEE: Thank you.

Are you familiar with the Ashcroft/Sessions policy, namely the policy requiring prosecutors to charge the most significant, readily provable offense?

BARR: Yes, senator.

LEE: Tell me how that should best be balanced out with the discretion of a prosecutor -- most frequently, of course, with the discretion of a local U.S. attorney's office.

BARR: Well, I was going to say, I think the best way of balancing it out is to have a supervisor who is able to approve departures from that policy based on the specific circumstances. And -- and there are (ph) countless different, you know, permutations of facts that might justify a departure from it.

So I -- I think it's best handled by supervisory people but I also think it has to be looked at centrally. I'm not saying that each case has to be approved centrally but there has to be some monitoring of what's going on because, as you know, one of the things that led to the sentencing guidelines was -- you know, just difference -- big differences in the way the laws were being applied and enforced around the country.

And I think we need to keep -- try to strive for as much uniformity as we can.

LEE: OK. But you intend to continue that policy?

BARR: Yes.

LEE: And -- and...

BARR: Unless someone tells me a good reason not to. LEE: ... and -- if I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that if you do follow it you will defer to the judgment of the office in question in the case of determining when to not charge the most serious, readily provable offense?

BARR: No. I -- I mean, I won't defer to my -- I mean, I'm not going to say, yes, I will defer to my subordinates. I mean, usually you do defer to your subordinates, but there might be a case I disagree with and I'll assert myself on it.

LEE: OK. I see my time has expired.

Thank you, sir.

GRAHAM: Thanks, Senator Lee.

We'll take a recess to 12:15 and start with Senator Whitehouse when we come back.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ACHOR: Hello, everyone. Kate Bolduan here, joining you from Washington, as we have all been watching the confirmation hearing of attorney general nominee, Bill Barr, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A big focus on Russia, his positions on the investigation, and the memo that he wrote.

Lots to discuss. Joining me right now, CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here, senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Justice reporter, Laura Jarret, is here, and chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Gloria, how do you think Bill Barr has been doing?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he has been doing quite well. I think he has made it very clear, as he said, he will not be bullied by anybody. He also on a personal level -- that was in response to a question from Senator Durbin, which was, how can you work for this president, you know what you are in for. That was the question. His answers to those kinds of questions have been, if I were 45 or 50 years old, I might think about it, but I'm in a place in my career where I can tell the truth because I'm at the end, not at the beginning. He said this is OK for me because I won't do anything that is wrong. I will not be bullied into doing anything that is wrong. And on question after question, he seemed to also defend Bob Mueller very strongly, saying he doesn't believe this is a witch-hunt. He is good friends with him and he is a fair-minded person. I'm not sure the president liked that, but I think the Democrats did.

BOLDUAN: A couple of points that maybe the president he publicly disagreed with in talking about the Mueller investigation, he says that the Mueller investigation is not a witch-hunt. He does not view it as a witch-hunt. Also, way back when, when Jeff Sessions was attorney general and recused himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, he said Sessions did the right thing recusing himself. We all know the history of how the president feels about that. I thought those were interesting points. EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think you're right.

I think what the Democrats wanted to hear from Bill Barr was he will protect the investigation and not do anything to interfere with it. I think he is sort of hueing to a line right there. All of his answers are very loyally. He talks about he will not allow the president's team to correct or to fix any parts of the report. These are things that I think are exactly what the Democrats want to hear from him. But, look, there's a lot of wiggle room in everything he says because he says he will abide by the regulations. Of course, the regulations leave a lot of interpretation to whoever is in that job.

[11:35:09] BOLDUAN: Let's play some of that wiggle room. There are a couple of points. This is sound byte one, for the Control Room, when Senator Graham, Chairman Graham asked, as well as Dianne Feinstein asked about, if, how, when and what circumstances will he make the Mueller report public. Listen.


GRAHAM: When his report comes to you, will you share it with us as much as possible?

WILLIAM BARR, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S NOMINEE FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL: Consistent with the regulations and the law, yes.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D), CALIFORNIA: Will you commit to making any report Mueller produces at the conclusion of his investigation available to Congress and to the public?

BARR: As I said, in my statement, I am going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations that are part of the special counsel regulations.


BOLDUAN: Laura, what do you make of that?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's fascinating because the regulations are actually pretty clear about what Mueller has to do. All he has to do is set forth his reasons for why he prosecuted people and why he declined to prosecute people. The attorney general has sole discretion about what to do after that step. You saw sort of a preview as how he comes down when it came to talking about FBI Director James Comey and how Comey got out ahead of the Justice Department when it came to the Clinton investigation.


JARRETT: I think people are seeing parallels and reading the tea leaves on what he can do in this situation. Because he is saying, if there's nothing that suggests an indictment is warranted, then you don't get to sort of unload on somebody and get up there and hold a press conference in the way that Comey did. That was one of the things that was used in Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney's memo for why Comey went beyond the bounds of the Justice Department. His point was not only that he did something that was so extraordinary, via a vis, Clinton, but that he got out ahead of Loretta Lynch, who was the attorney general at the time. That was improper. So it is interesting to see Barr sort of saying, look, if I'm attorney general, that will not happen. It's sort of not controversial to say what Comey did was out of bounds. But when it comes to --


When it comes to --


BOLDUAN: -- Democrats and Republicans.

JARRETT: As it is universally understood, what he did was out of the norm. The question is, what does that mean when it comes to the Mueller report.

BORGER: Right.

JARRETT: And whether it means, if it says anything sort of negative about Trump but there's no indictment or no formal charge, how much of that are we going to get to see?

BOLDUAN: When you hear the legalese in how he answered the questions, does that allow for something short of a public release of the report?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It does, because he says there may be some things in the report covered by executive privilege and I will not release that. Now, and he's right that. That is a fact. So he did not commit to releasing it just regardless of what's in it. But it does beg the question of how much the White House will assert is covered by executive privilege. And this is not a mathematical formula, either. The definition of executive privilege is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. And how he chooses to define that will have a big impact on how much of that report is publicized or not.

Can I just make one point about -- which I was sort of struck by? It's like, confirm me, I'm so old.



TOOBIN: I just thought that was such an interesting argument.


TOOBIN: It sort of persuasive.


TOOBIN: It raised the question of whether anyone in their 40s and 50s should be confirmed for anything because they are so ambitious and they're worried about how they're --


TOOBIN: I'm old and I'm rich, and I am going to die soon anyway, so what difference does it make.



TOOBIN: I just thought that --


TOOBIN: And it was sort of weird and funny, but it was also pretty persuasive.



TOOBIN: I thought he actually made a very good point, that, hey --

JARRETT: I don't care --


TOOBIN: -- I don't care about the consequences. But it did sort of raise the question about, like what about all the people in their 40s and 50s. Should we discount everything they --


BOLDUAN: You can't trust them.


BORGER: That's the only reason he took the job.


Because if he had been younger, he would be worried about all of those things --


BOLDUAN: Gloria, don't you also think that when you look at the public shaming that Jeff Sessions endured throughout his time as attorney general, that Durbin albeit had his reasons to ask the question, he asked the question probably on everyone's mind as they wondered as he took this nomination, why would you want the job? He really did pose a question that I think everyone is probably wondering.

[11:40:05] BORGER: Right. His answer to that was, I care about public service and I care about the Department of Justice and all the FBI and everything else and I am devoted to it and I served as A.G. once before and I think I can do a good job. I would point out that Jeff Sessions was not 40 years old either, and he did leave under some cloud with Donald Trump because he was -- was he fired via tweet? I can't remember anymore but --


BORGER: But Durbin's point was, I think, that that could happen to you.

I was also interested in the fact that when we're talking about how much of the report being public, Grassley, Chuck Grassley came out, Republican, former chairman, and said, you know, the public spent $25 million on this, they deserve to see the thing. He's a Republican who said, they paid for it, they should read it. That was interesting.

BOLDUAN: What do you think of his explanation of the much-discussed, leading up to this, the memo that he wrote?

PEREZ: Right.

BOLDUAN: I found it fascinating his explanation of to almost answering to the question of, why would anyone, just for fun, write a 19-page deeply sourced legal theory memo. He says that he heard that Rod Rosenstein really liked deep dives so he was into it.

PEREZ: Right. It's kind of like what Rod Rosenstein does in his spare time other than watching Netflix.


But I do think that the discussion of the memo was fascinating for a couple of reasons. Going in, I thought he was going to get grilled and be torn apart on this.


PEREZ: His explanation, for the weirdness that it is, I think it kind of worked. There's a couple of things that he emphasized. That is that he did not have any special knowledge. He was simply essentially behaving like a pundit, just reading media reports and having opinions on legal theory that he had read. He sort of talks a little bit about how he shared it broadly. These are things that I think maybe disarm some of the criticism.

I don't know if you agree with me but --

JARRETT: They didn't pressure him on the recipients at all.

PEREZ: Right.

JARRETT: He is not just sending it to his buddies. He is sending it to the man who is in the White House counsel's office at the time, the man who later becomes White House counsel.


JARRETT: So it's -- he is sending it to George Terwilliger (ph), his former deputy, and his buddy, Abby Lowell (ph), who happens to be Jared Kushner's lawyer. But who he is disseminating it to leads to you believe he is acting as a shadow counsel at the time.

BOLDUAN: With that in mind, and then with his explanation, he went out of his way to say, I wasn't auditioning for this.


BOLDUAN: Do you agree with that after his explanation of this memo that he wasn't?

TOOBIN: I sort of did, actually. He really did seem like he was out of the game. Remember, they offered him effectively the job of representing Trump --

BOLDUAN: Yes, another factor.

TOOBIN: -- which was an exchange that we didn't know about. And for people who weren't watching, in 2017, Ambassador Friedman, who is --

BOLDUAN: U.S. ambassador to Israel.

TOOBIN: -- the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a former law partner of Mr. Kasowitz, who is one of the president's lawyers, said, would you like to work for -- and they took him in to meet with Trump and he basically said, I want to do this.

PEREZ: Right.

TOOBIN: I sort of do believe that this was not an ambition thing --


PEREZ: I think what we know about the audition process, it bears out, because I think when we knew that the president wanted to fire Rosenstein and also Sessions --

BOLDUAN: Sessions.

PEREZ: -- there were also people who did approach Barr and he, at first, said no.

BOLDUAN: Guys, hold on.

[11:44:04] We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, I think there's an important -- and you guys know this as well -- there's one aspect, one thing that he was asked about, president offering pardons. It's an important thing to discuss, the implications of that. Right after this.


BOLDUAN: A look live on Capitol Hill. Inside that capitol building today, we've heard two hours of questioning of attorney general nominee, Bill Barr, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A lot was discussed. A lot of questions, a lot of answers. They'll be picking up after lunch break in a few minutes.

But a lot to go through first.

Laura, one thing that stuck out to you was the question that Senator Leahy, Democratic Senator Pat Leahy, that he raised with Bill Barr about the question of a presidential pardon. Let me play that for everybody.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D), VERMONT: Do you believe the president could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient's promise to not incriminate him?

BARR: No. That would be a crime.


BOLDUAN: Why is that moment so important in the two hours we've been watching?

JARRETT: Because this is a president who loves to tout his sole ability to pardon anyone he wants. Of course, he can, but the question has always been, should he? Is that a good idea if he's pardoning someone in some sort of exchange for something else --


PEREZ: Or dangling a pardon --


JARRETT: Exactly --


[11:50:04] PEREZ: -- like with the Manafort case. Whether or not that could be considered obstruction, that's a fascinating area that really wasn't explored.

TOOBIN: It's also significant because his 19-page memo talks about how the president cannot be charged with obstruction of justice, in Barr's opinion, for firing Comey. Here he's saying the president can be charged with obstruction of justice for promising a pardon. So the accusation that Barr believes the president is above the law is refuted, at least, by his position on this issue.

BORGER: One thing that he also said today was that he wrote that memo and he didn't know what Mueller is doing, that he had no inside information. While he believes this one slice of obstruction vis-a- vis Comey would -- you know, should not be done, there are other ways to obstruct. And he made that very clear, that, you know, obstruction in this way, firing Comey, the president is allowed to fire whomever he wants, whenever he wants, but there are other ways to obstruct justice. And as you were just talking about with pardons, et cetera, et cetera, it seems to me that the Democrats are going to come down and focus more on the obstruction issue and maybe try and get him to say, well, what would constitute obstruction from a president, setting aside where you think the president cannot obstruct justice, I.E, Comey. We don't know that Mueller is just looking at Comey on obstruction. I'm presuming, in fact, that he might be looking at other things. Aren't you --


PEREZ: No. Yes, I agree with that.

JARRETT: He said to intervene in something that he has a personal stake in would be an abuse of power. Well, we reported not too long ago that the president has called up Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, to raise the question about the prosecution of his former fixer and attorney, Michael Cohen, and he lambasted the fact that the attorneys at SDNY, the southern district of New York, they've sort of gone rogue. He thinks they're prosecuting something that isn't illegal. He has a very personal stake in the outcome of that obviously, being individual number one. So if I was a Senator, I would question him about, is that an abuse of power, to call him up and question the acting attorney general about that?

BOLDUAN: And coming up, many Senators to go, still, when they pick back up. They have just scratched the surface on who has asked questions so far, including all of the possible 2020 contenders on the Democratic side that are on this committee. So you have to imagine there are some questions, just like Laura is talking about, that's coming their way.

PEREZ: What they haven't brought up, or very little of, is immigration. I mean, this is something that was --


BOLDUAN: It is interesting that with such a focus on the Russia investigation, as is expected --


BOLDUAN: -- in the middle of a government shutdown --


BOLDUAN: -- that it is not such a priority in this area.

PEREZ: And, obviously, he would be, if confirmed, as we expect, he would be following an attorney general who basically was all about immigration all the time. And so, you know, knowing a little bit about Bill Barr and where he stands on some of these issues, I think we expect a little bit of a turn from where Sessions was. But I think it would be illuminating for perhaps some of the 2020 contenders to get that out of him.

BOLDUAN: Maybe they are listening to this right now. Maybe they'll take your suggestion. Guys, stick around.

We have much more to come from the questioning of Bill Barr on Capitol Hill.

But also happening today, one of the most significant votes in Britain in decades. Just hours from now, lawmakers in parliament are deciding on Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for Brexit to exit the European Union, Brexit, of course.

CNN's Nic Robertson is in London.

Where do things stand right now, Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: In a state of crisis and chaos, in a word, at the moment, Kate. The position we're at right now, trying to agree on the withdrawal agreement, the fundamentals of separating from the European Union, should have been nailed down well over a year ago. It is now 73 days before Britain leaves the European Union. The vote coming in the next couple hours would, if it were to pass, clear the path for Britain leaving the European Union. Not everyone in the country would be happy. Some people would agree that it falls short of what they originally expected, but people could go along with it. The reality is, we're nowhere near that point. Theresa May is expected to lose the vote between about 50 and potentially 220, 230 votes. If the number were that high, that would be an historic loss. But the reality is there's no consensus on how to move forward while the country is not clear what she might do next. It's not clear if the opposition will go ahead, as they've threatened, and call a vote of no-confidence in the government. Theresa May has been told, if she loses this vote, that by Monday, she must come back with a plan B. But it is altogether unclear what she is likely to decide on, what level of loss constitutes that she must give up on the current withdrawal plan that she has, that potentially she goes back to Brussels, forgetting not, of course, this is a negotiation and tries to get something else from Brussels that would appease the critics of the withdrawal agreement at the moment. The reality is there's no consensus on the way forward. She is going to lose by a very big number. That's the expectation -- Kate?

[11:55:26] BOLDUAN: Just an amazing moment for Britain and the European Union all playing out right before our eyes.

Thank you so much, Nic. Much more to come, obviously, there.

But still ahead for us, we have much more special live coverage of the confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee, Bill Barr.

John King is going to pick up our special coverage after a quick break.