A.G. nominee Barr 'can conceive' of jailing journalists 'as a last resort'

During his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Attorney General nominee William Barr was asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whether his Justice Department would “jail journalists for doing their jobs.”

Barr, President Trump’s pick for the nation’s top law enforcement officer, said he could envision a situation where a news organization or individual journalist could be held in contempt of court.

“I think that, uh, you know I know there are guidelines in place,” Barr said after a 7-second pause. “And I can conceive of situations where, uh, you know, as a last resort, and where a news organization has run through a red flag or something like that, knows that they’re putting out stuff that will hurt the country. There might — there could be a situation where somebody could be held in contempt.”

Klobuchar, whose father was a longtime journalist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told Barr that she would like his answer to the committee in writing, noting that she had asked former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the same during his confirmation hearings in 2017.

Trump has had an adversarial relationship with the media throughout his presidency, disparaging critical stories as “fake news” and floating the idea of prosecuting journalists and new outlets that publish them. Trump has also openly mused about changes to libel law to make it easier for the subjects of news stories to sue. And last year, the White House temporarily revoked press credentials for CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta following a contentious exchange with Trump at a press conference.

Related: William Barr through the years:

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William Barr through the years
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William Barr through the years
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 1991 file photo, then Attorney General nominee William Barr is shown on Capitol Hill in Washington. Barr once advised the U.S. government that it could attack Iraq without Congressional approval, arrest a deposed foreign dictator and capture suspects abroad without that country’s permission. Those decisions reflect a broad view of presidential power that Barr, President Donald Trump's pick to reclaim his old attorney general job, demonstrated at the Justice Department and in the years since. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
U.S. President George H. Bush signs into law new civil rights guarantees for women and minorities at a Rose Garden ceremony, Thursday, Nov. 21, 1991 in Washington, as Vice President Dan Quayle, left, and Acting Attorney General William Barr look on. The bill signing capped a two-year struggle with congress over whether the legislation encouraged job quotas. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
U.S. President George H. Bush, right, and William Barr wave after Barr was sworn in as the new Attorney General of the United States, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1991 at a Justice Department ceremony in Washington. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)
U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while talking to Attorney General William Barr in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 4, 1992 in Washington. The President met with top domestic Cabinet officers to tackle long-range problems pushed to the forefront by last week's deadly riots in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
Board member of MCI Telecommunications, Nicholas Katzenbach, second left, speaks at hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on "The WorldCom Case: Looking at Bankruptcy and Competition Issues" on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, July 22, 2003. Witnesses are, from left, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Verizon Communications William Barr, Katzenbach, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP's Marcia Goldstein, Communications Workers of America President Morton Bahr, National Bankruptcy Conference Vice-Chair Douglas Baird, Cerberus Capital Management Chief Operation Officer Mark Neporent. (AP Photo/Akira Ono)
Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, left, listens as William Redpath, Libertarian Party national chairman, answers a question at a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. (AP Photo)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, left, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee member and Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, arrives to meet with Senate Judiciary Committee member and Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, right, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Attorney General nominee William Barr , left, turns to answer a reporter's question as he arrives to meet with Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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But presidential clashes with the press predate Trump. During President Barack Obama’s administration, the Justice Department subpoenaed telephone records of Associated Press journalists and named Fox News correspondent James Rosen as a potential co-conspirator in separate leak cases. The Obama DOJ also refused to drop a case involving New York Times reporter James Risen that began during the George W. Bush administration. (Risen refused to testify about his confidential source in the federal investigation of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling. Risen lost a Supreme Court appeal, but then-Attorney General Eric Holder ultimately decided not to force his testimony.)

“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power,” Risen wrote in an op-ed three weeks before Trump’s inauguration. “Barack Obama.”

Last June, law enforcement officials seized years’ worth of phone and email records of a Times reporter, Ali Watkins, in a leak investigation of James Wolfe, the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee and Watkins’ ex-boyfriend. (Wolfe was charged with lying to FBI investigators about his contacts with reporters.)

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet called the seizure “a troublesome development.”

“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection,” the paper said.

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