AG pick Barr emphasizes independence from Trump
Attorney general nominee William Barr staked out differing positions from President Trump on a series of issues related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, demonstrating an independence that’s likely to help him win votes for confirmation.
Barr praised Mueller’s credibility, saying he did not believe the Russia investigation was a “witch hunt,” and credited former Attorney General Jeff Sessions with making the right choice in recusing himself from the probe. He also said the White House should not be allowed to “correct” the special counsel’s final report.
Trump’s pick to be the nation’s top cop handled most of the tougher questions from Democrats, suffering few if any missteps that might have endangered his nomination in a chamber where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority and only 51 votes are needed for confirmation.
Democrats came prepared to grill Barr on his past criticisms of the Mueller investigation, in particular a memo he sent to the White House and Justice Department in June describing the obstruction of justice aspect of the probe as reliant on a “fatally misconceived” theory.
Barr defended the memo and described it as “narrow in scope,” asserting it opined on a specific obstruction of justice theory and did not question the core probe into Russian interference and potential collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. He also said it was widely distributed, not just to individuals in the administration.
“I can assure you I was not trying to ingratiate myself with anybody,” Barr told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
His answers showed signs of assuaging fears among Democrats that he might limit the investigation or bow to political pressures from the White House to impede it. But not completely.
“I think some of the things he has said have been helpful, but I wouldn’t say that that is a mission he has yet accomplished,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told The Hill during a brief recess Tuesday afternoon, adding that Barr was a “polished answerer.”
Trump has repeatedly derided the investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” that he wants ended and has denied “collusion” between his campaign and Moscow. The president’s escalating attacks have triggered fears among his critics that he could thwart Mueller’s probe.
Barr described the Russia investigation as legitimate and in the public’s interest, and he committed to allowing Mueller to continue his work. In one noteworthy exchange with Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Barr indicated he would resign if Trump directed him to fire the special counsel without cause.
“Most famously, when directed by President Nixon to fire the special counsel, the prosecutor investigating Watergate, [Elliot] Richardson, refused and resigned instead, as we all know,” Coons said. “If those directions were to fire Mueller, would you follow Richardson’s example and resign instead?”
“Without good cause?” Barr replied. “I would not carry out that instruction.”
He later acknowledged that it is “understandable” that Trump views the probe as a witch hunt, given that he maintains there was no collusion.
“I think it’s understandable that if someone felt they were falsely accused, they would feel the investigation was something like a witch hunt,” Barr told lawmakers.
Barr, who served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, was circumspect in some of his answers. He said he would provide as much information as possible to Congress and the public about Mueller’s final report in accordance with relevant laws, but was careful not to commit to releasing the findings in their entirety.
“That certainly is my goal and intent,” Barr said.
He also would not commit to recusing himself from the investigation if career Justice Department ethics officials recommended that course of action, a response that irked some Democrats.
“You’re going to basically follow the Whitaker model,” quipped Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), referring to acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who did not recuse himself from the Mueller probe despite guidance from an ethics official. “In this context, just asking us to trust you is not enough.”
Trump’s extended attacks on Sessions for his recusal ultimately precipitated his resignation the day after the November midterm elections.
Barr’s daylong confirmation hearing, the first of two, mostly centered around questions about oversight of the Mueller investigation, which is on the verge of entering its 21st month.
When asked to address remarks made by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to The Hill last week that the president’s legal team should be allowed to “correct” Mueller’s ultimate report, Barr gave a definitive response.
“That will not happen,” Barr said.
He also fielded inquiries about immigration, criminal justice reform and drug prosecutions, in addition to highlighting what would be his priorities at the Justice Department: prosecuting violent and hate crimes; enforcing immigration laws; and protecting the integrity of U.S. elections.
The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), is expected to advance Barr’s nomination, due in large part to the GOP majority on the panel. His nomination will then be considered by the full Senate.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation presses on, garnering intense public intrigue. The special counsel is widely believed to be in the later stages of the investigation, but there are not clear signs that Mueller is wrapping up anytime soon.
In a court filing Tuesday, Mueller indicated that former Trump campaign aide Richard Gates is cooperating in “several” ongoing investigations. Mueller’s grand jury was also extended earlier this month, raising the possibility the Russia probe could go on for months longer.
Olivia Beavers and Jacqueline Thomsen contributed.
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