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Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin Discusses Attorney General Nominee William Barr


Well, despite the shutdown, one piece of government business that did take place this week was the confirmation hearing of President Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin was one of the senators questioning Barr. And as one of the Senate's Democratic leaders, he's also working on trying to find a bipartisan solution to the shutdown. Senator Durbin and I spoke earlier today about the shutdown and Barr's nomination. Senator Durbin, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DICK DURBIN: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: To start with the attorney general nominee, have you decided whether you'll vote to confirm Barr?

DURBIN: No, I'm taking a look at - it closer look at his answers to questions. I would tell you that the Mueller inquiry was front and center for obvious reasons. We may be facing a constitutional crisis soon, and the attorney general will play a pivotal role. Two questions were asked of him. One, he was very clear and decisive. Would he interfere with Mueller's investigation? He said no and said it repeatedly. I think where there's some weakness in his reply was what he would do with the results of the inquiry. After what we've been through for the last two years and who knows how much longer, I think at the end of the day, we would have all liked to have heard him say that he's going to make a transparent, full disclosure of the results of that inquiry.

SHAPIRO: Well, he did say he would like to make it public, consistent with the law. What concerns you about that answer?

DURBIN: Well, of course, he's a good lawyer. And he erected a little shelter for himself there by talking about the requirements of the law. He has, I think, wide discretion and authority to disclose to the American public. And I'd like to hear him indicate in a more fulsome way that he is dedicated to as much disclosure as legally possible.

SHAPIRO: Beyond the Mueller investigation, you also asked him some questions about immigration. The last attorney general, Jeff Sessions, made being tough on immigrants one of his signature issues. Do you think William Barr would take the same hard line approach on policies like separating children from their parents and trying to keep asylum-seekers out of the country?

DURBIN: Ari, the honest answer is I don't know. And I'll have to tell you, when General Kelly did his exit interview with the press, they talked about Jeff Sessions. And he said one of the reasons he was asked to leave was the zero-tolerance policy. But I never really put it, you know neatly, on Jeff Sessions' doorstep. I really thought this reflected what the president thought, what Steve Miller, his adviser on immigration, thought.

And so if the attorney general is going to play that kind of seminal role in immigration policy, I was looking for some indication that he's even close to the center stripe. He was very careful to endorse the wall over and over again even when it didn't apply. He didn't really break from the Trump approach on immigration. That troubles me.

SHAPIRO: To turn from the attorney general confirmation hearings to the shutdown, the president met with some centrist lawmakers of both parties yesterday, not with congressional leadership. Is it your impression that any movement came out of that meeting?

DURBIN: No. And I think the problem, of course, is the president has said the shutdown continues until he gets some sort of an agreement from Democrats as to how to we move forward. That's absolutely unacceptable. This is the first time ever a president of the United States has initiated a shutdown. We elect a president to lead and manage, not to shut down the government and create a real problem and suffering for hundreds of thousands of federal employees.

SHAPIRO: You've said that the president is being intransigent. And I also want to ask about the position that Democrats have taken. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has framed this as a moral issue. She has said she would give no more than one dollar to funding a border wall. If the expectation is that the two sides will negotiate, have Democrats painted themselves into a corner here?

DURBIN: Let's remember where we started. We offered $1.3 billion for border security. Now, where did the Democrats come up with that number? Well, we came up with it from President Trump. We gave him his request. It was only afterwards, after some negative reaction from some of the right wing about his signing a temporary spending bill, that he decided to dig in, shut down the government. If we're going to get back to the table - and we should - open the government, the negotiations will start immediately.

SHAPIRO: So is it your position that the shutdown has to end before there is an agreement on border security? As you know, the administration says there needs to be an agreement on border security before the shutdown ends.

DURBIN: Yes, for two reasons. First, it's totally unreasonable. The president has said he takes pride in the shutdown. And certainly I don't understand why when we have federal employees going to food pantries now to try to make it through this month. And second, this president and his chief of staff who's voted for previous shutdowns have to understand this is not the ordinary course of business. We shouldn't wonder what's going to be in the February shutdown if we solve the January shutdown.

SHAPIRO: The last government shutdown lasted 13 days, less than half as long as this one. And by one estimate, it caused $24 billion in lost economic output. The president is asking for $5.7 billion for his border wall. At some point, is it worth just paying that price because the shutdown costs the economy so much more?

DURBIN: And then what happens in February? Do we face it again on the next issue, whatever it happens to be, the president's favorite? We have to reach the point where we grow up in Washington and discount the notion of shutting down the government and harming innocent people just because the president wants his way.

SHAPIRO: With respect, that doesn't sound like the Washington we've been living in for some time now.

DURBIN: It doesn't. But most Americans said in the November 6 election they want change. And what you're seeing now is a Democratic Party in the House and many in the Senate. And I might add some Republican senators who are trying to say to this president, for goodness sakes, this is not an appropriate way to deal with an important issue.

SHAPIRO: So I know how you would like this shutdown to end. What is your realistic expectation of how this shutdown actually will end?

DURBIN: Well, conversations continue. I don't think they're particularly productive at this moment. I hope they continue at every level. And most importantly, I hope that the same Republican senators who come up to me on the floor and say they're fed up with the shutdown will tell Mitch McConnell that. If he calls the spending bill which Nancy Pelosi passed, and it passes the Senate, I think the president will understand it's time for the shutdown to end.

SHAPIRO: Democrats have been attacking the president far more than they have Republican leaders in Congress. But because you mentioned Mitch McConnell, I have to ask, much responsibility do you think he bears for this? Could he end it if he wanted to?

DURBIN: Yes, he could. And I think if he looks at the Constitution, which we all swear to uphold and defend, it spells it out. We have the authority to pass legislation. If the president chooses to veto it, under the Constitution, we can override the veto. If it's necessary to follow that course, we should.

SHAPIRO: So why do you think McConnell hasn't done that?

DURBIN: I think he doesn't want to brook the embarrassment of this president, having his Senate Republicans turn on him. That's why the president showed up for the Senate Republican lunch last week - to keep the troops in line. But they're getting restive. They want to see an end to this, and they want it soon, and I hope they do.

SHAPIRO: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. Thank you for joining us again.

DURBIN: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.