Graham sets conciliatory tone at AG confirmation hearing — but also sticks up for Trump

Sen. Lindsey Graham showed off his two political sides Tuesday morning as he presided over the highly-anticipated hearing to confirm Attorney General nominee William Barr: His conciliatory instincts — and his commitment to defending President Donald Trump.

It was Graham’s first appearance as judiciary committee chairman, and the South Carolina Republican made it clear from the start he he wanted to work well with Democrats.

But during his first opportunity to question Barr directly, the South Carolina Republican pressed the nominee on whether he would hold the Justice Department and FBI accountable for agency officials who appeared biased against Trump.

Graham was illustrating the sort of chairman he planned to be: Someone who would work with Democrats to get things done, but not retreat from efforts to ensure the legal system is fair to a president increasingly under siege — a president with whom Graham has become increasingly allied.

As he opened up the question-and-answer portion of the Barr confirmation hearing, Graham made sure Barr had a chance to underscore support for White House special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia — which could address whether Trump obstructed justice in firing FBI Director James Comey.

Graham also had Barr assert that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was correct to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, an action with which Trump vehemently disagreed.

But Graham also told Barr that as attorney general, he must look into whether the appropriate “checks and balances” were in place to ensure the FBI could not arbitrarily open up a counterintelligence investigation into the sitting president of the United States, as a New York Times article recently reported.

And the senator cited a climate within the Justice Department that was in 2016 reportedly prejudiced against Trump while many employees were actively rooting for Democrat Hillary Clinton to become the president.

“We are relying upon you to clean this place up,” Graham said. “Please get to the bottom of it.”

Graham had begun the hearing by trying to clear the air about any doubts he would be fair.

Last fall, the committee was overcome with partisan rancor during proceedings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Graham used his opening remarks Tuesday to assuage Democrats’ concerns that he’d run the panel as the fierce partisan that emerged during the Kavanaugh hearings. He roasted his Democratic colleagues at the time for what he perceived as unfair treatment of the then-nominee battling accusations of sexual misconduct.

“The times in which we live are very difficult times. I don’t see them getting better overnight, but I do see them getting better if we want them to,” Graham said Tuesday, alluding to the partisan bitterness in the current political environment that also overtook the committee in the previous Congress. “I want us to do better.

“The immigration Lindsey will show up,” Graham said, “but the other guy’s there too, and I don’t like him any more than you do.”

Graham was referring first to his bipartisan, dealmaking temperament on divisive issues such as providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, then to his propensity to get passionately angry over appearances of injustices, as he did during the Kavanaugh proceedings.

“On this side, I know, there are a lot of ideas that, if we sit down and talked, we could embrace,” said Graham, “and I look forward to solving as many problems as we can and having a contest of ideas that really matter to the American people.”

He referenced some of the priorities of committee members from both parties that he would like to address as chairman. He nodded to Sens. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, and Chris Coons, D-Delaware, who have interest in overhauling intellectual property laws. He noted Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, are eying bills improving social media practices.

“As to the hopes and dreams for this committee: To get as much done as possible, and to fight when we have to over things that matter to the public ... but to do so as respectfully as possible,” Graham said.

The committee hearing started early in the day and continued into the evening, with Democrats seeking to extract clear commitments from Barr that he would protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation.

The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, was among several members who asked Barr directly if he would provide Mueller’s report to Congress, and if he would submit a version to lawmakers full of redactions of more highly-sensitive information.

Barr did not make any guarantees, but said his “objective and goal is to get as much information as I can to Congress and the public.”

After being asked repeatedly about the content of a memo Barr submitted last year to outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in support of Trump firing Comey, Graham spoke up to see if he could help clarify Barr’s stance.

But Graham stayed quiet for most of the afternoon, allowing Democrats to press the nominee on mass incarceration, marijuana laws, border security and other topics. The new chairman slipped in and out of the room as the hearing continued, with other Republicans filling in at the head of the dais.

Klobuchar told reporters she was pleased so far with the Graham who had showed up to chair the hearing.

“It’s his first hearing,” she said, “and he’s being professional.”

At the hearing’s conclusion, Graham also praised Democrats for helping facilitate a civil tone.

“I was really pleased,” he said. “To my Democratic colleagues, you took advantage of your time. You asked him, I think good questions. you got him on the record about some things Democrats are worried about. That’s the whole purpose of this hearing.

“the whole point of this exercise is to make political points but to also make sure the attorney general will respect oversight,” Graham added.

Julianna Rennie contributed to this report.

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Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.