WASHINGTON —President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, told a Senate panel Tuesday he would not interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — and wouldn’t be “bullied” into doing so.
“I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong, and I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong,” said Barr. “By anybody. Whether it be editorial boards, or Congress or the President. I’m going to do what I think is right.”
Barr pledged to release Mueller’s findings to the public under the proper regulations, saying that, if confirmed, he would not allow “partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration” to mess with the investigation.
“President Trump has sought no assurances, promises, or commitments from me of any kind, either express or implied, and I have not given him any, other than that I would run the department with professionalism and integrity,” Barr said.
Barr later added, in response to Trump’s consistent criticism of Mueller: “I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt.”
Barr also said he would support releasing Mueller’s findings to the public.
Barr has publicly supported Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey over his handling of the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. And he has privately criticized Mueller’s inquiry into Trump’s potential obstruction of justice in asking Comey to drop a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn — and then firing him.
The top two senators on the Judiciary panel, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, zeroed in on a memo Barr sent last year to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in which he called the obstruction of justice aspect of the Mueller investigation “fatally misconceived.”
Feinstein said the memo “shows a large sweeping view of presidential authority and a determined effort, I thought, to undermine Bob Mueller.”
Addressing the memo he wrote to Rosenstein, Barr said it was “ludicrous” that his writing of that memo could be viewed as a job application.
“If I wanted the job, and was going after the job, there are many more direct ways of me bringing myself to the President’s attention, than writing an 18-page legal memorandum,” he said.
Barr also gave more details about how he delivered the memo, explaining that he first “verbally” gave his opinion to Rosenstein, recalling the deputy attorney general’s “sphinxlike” reaction and his follow-up in a written memo. Barr said he asked Rosenstein’s staff if he would prefer reading a one-page document or something in-depth.
Graham then interjected a bit of levity in the hearing, asking Barr if he thought Trump was a “one-pager kind of guy.”
“I suspect he is,” replied Barr.
Meeting with Trump in 2017
Before Barr was considered for the attorney general position, the White House considered him to join the President’s legal defense team.
In June 2017, Barr testified, David M. Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, asked him if he would be interested. Barr said he declined the offer, but accepted Friedman’s invitation to meet the President the next day.
When Trump asked Barr about his personal friendship with Mueller and about the special counsel’s integrity, Barr recalled telling the President that Mueller should be treated as a “straight shooter.” Barr then said he told Trump that he was unable to take the job due to personal and professional obligations, they exchanged phone numbers, and he didn’t hear from him again until the attorney general post came up.
Comey and Clinton investigation
Barr criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s email server, particularly for straying from Justice Department procedures in publicly announcing that Clinton’s handling of classified information was “extremely careless” but not criminal.
“If you’re not going to indict someone, then you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person,” said Barr. “That’s not the way the Department of Justice does business.”
Barr added that Comey had “no choice but to correct the record” when the former FBI director had to publicly announce just days before the presidential election that he had reopened, and then closed again, the investigation. “The whole sequence was very herky jerky and bizarre,” he said.
“It sort of shows you what happens when you start disregarding the normal procedures and established practice,” he added. “You sort of dig yourself a deeper and deeper hole.”
‘Zero tolerance’ for hate crimes
If confirmed, Barr would take over from acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who replaced Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who was fired by the President in November.
The Justice Department, Barr will say, must concentrate on “zero tolerance” for violent hate crimes, “enforcing and improving” immigration laws and protecting the right to vote.
In a nod to criminal justice reform advocates concerned about his record, Barr recognized that the crime rate has “substantially fallen” since he left the department in the early ’90s and says that he would “diligently implement” the First Step Act, a bill overwhelmingly passed by Congress last year to overhaul prison laws. Yet he also put himself in the same category as his tough-on-crime predecessor, saying, “like Attorney General Sessions, I believe we must keep up the pressure on chronic, violent criminals.”
Barr said he regrets that he is testifying during a government shutdown, the longest in US history. For more than three weeks, Trump has pressed Congress to approve over $5 billion to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, one of his top campaign promises in 2016.
He also said his thoughts are with the federal workers and echoed the administration’s stance on immigration: “In order to ensure that our immigration system works properly, we must secure our nation’s borders, and we must ensure that our laws allow us to process, hold, and remove those who unlawfully enter.”