William Barr vowed to protect Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation from political interference but said he—not Mueller—may ultimately write the public version of the special counsel’s findings if he’s confirmed as attorney general.
“I will commit to providing as much information as I can consistent with the regulations” on special counsels, Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Justice Department, said Tuesday in the first of two days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Barr, 68, has been through the confirmation process before and served as attorney general in the 1990s. He showed the benefits of that seasoning as he answered some questions directly and adeptly sidestepped others from Democrats who sought what they’ve called “ironclad” assurances he’d let Mueller complete a probe that Trump routinely denounces.
Barr doesn’t need Democratic votes to win confirmation, although he may get some, and there’s no sign yet any Republicans are wavering on backing him.
“As soon as the due diligence has been done and the confirmation hearing and all the questions for the record have been responded to, then hopefully we can get him on the floor as soon as possible,” John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters on Tuesday.
Barr promised to give Mueller the resources and time he needs to finish his investigation. He didn’t agree to recuse himself from overseeing the probe in light of past opinions about it that he shared with the White House and Justice Department.
The nominee testified that he sees the Russia investigation as vital, disagreed with the president’s characterization of it as a “witch hunt” and said he would go by the book—the law and existing regulations—on overseeing the special counsel.
“I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong—by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president,” Barr vowed.
The Justice Department’s regulations on special counsels dictate that Mueller can give his report only to the attorney general, who decides what will become public. Barr said he interprets that as giving him the power to write his own version for public consumption.
He stopped short of saying he would agree with all of Mueller’s prosecutorial decisions while asserting his independence.
“I’m in a position in life that I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences,” he told senators.
Democrats pressed him about a memo he wrote last year criticizing Mueller for looking into Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey as possible obstruction of justice. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the memo read like a job application, a description Barr called “ludicrous.”
A Trump Meeting
Barr also revealed that he spoke to Trump about Mueller and his probe in 2017, when Trump was looking for personal legal representation.
“I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such,” said Barr, who added that he told Trump that he and Mueller were longtime friends.
Barr said he told the president he wasn’t interested in joining his legal team.
He said Trump nonetheless asked for his phone number but “that’s the only time I met him before I talked to him about the job of attorney general—which obviously is not the same as representing him.”
When Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware asked if Barr should recuse himself from overseeing Mueller, he said, “I’m not surrendering that responsibility.”
But Barr also said he wouldn’t stop Mueller from obtaining a subpoena compelling Trump to testify in the Russia investigation if doing so was justified.
“If there was a factual basis for doing it, and I couldn’t say it violated established polices, then I wouldn’t interfere,” he said.
And he promised Republican Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that he’d take another look at how the FBI handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the origins of the Russia investigation. Some Republicans argue that the probe was tainted by anti-Trump sentiment early on, before Mueller was appointed.
Antitrust to Marijuana
On other topics that fall under the attorney general’s jurisdiction, from antitrust policy to legalizing marijuana, Barr said:
The Senate Judiciary panel plans a second day of hearings Wednesday on Barr’s nomination that features outside witnesses.