WASHINGTON – Bill Barr, President Donald Trump's nominee for US attorney general, testified Tuesday that he does not believe special counsel Robert Mueller would be involved in a "witch hunt."
"Witch hunt" has been Trump's go-to insult against the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 election. The future of Mueller's work was a central theme as Barr testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and new committee chair Lindsey Graham kicked off the hearing with a series of questions about the special counsel's office.
Later in the day, Barr committed to certain ideas that would provide some protections to Mueller's investigation. In an exchange with Sen. Chris Coons, Barr said that the regulations covering Mueller's appointment — which limit how the special counsel can be removed — should not be changed while Mueller's investigation remains ongoing.
If Trump asked Barr to fire Mueller without cause or change the governing regulations, Barr said bluntly: "I would not carry out that instruction."
Earlier, Graham asked whether Barr would say that Mueller is "fair-minded." Barr replied, "Absolutely." Would Barr trust Mueller "to be fair to the president?" Graham asked. "Yes," Barr said. Would Barr share Mueller's final report with Congress "as much as possible?" Barr said he would make as much information available as possible, to the extent allowed under federal regulations — a point that Democrats pressed him on throughout the day.
Graham asked: "Do you believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt against anybody?"
"I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt," Barr replied.
Later in the morning, Barr said that he believed the Russian government attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, "and I think we have to get to the bottom of it."
In his introductory statement, which the Justice Department released on Monday, Barr said that if he were confirmed, he would make sure Mueller could finish his work. If Barr does become the nation's top law enforcement officer, he would take over responsibility for overseeing the special counsel's office — including the power to remove Mueller — assuming he doesn't recuse himself or is otherwise barred from doing so. Testifying on Tuesday, he didn't give any indication that, at least at this point, he believed he would need to recuse himself.
Graham asked Barr about former attorney general Jeff Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, given his role on Trump's campaign — a move that angered Trump. Graham asked Barr if he thought Sessions had a conflict of interest. Barr said he didn't have all the facts but thought Sessions "probably did the right thing."
Democrats have expressed concern about a memo Barr sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who until recently was overseeing Mueller's work, given Sessions' recusal — that was critical of a reported investigation by Mueller's office into whether Trump obstructed justice. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy asked if Barr would commit to seeking advice from career ethics officials at the Justice Department about whether he should recuse himself. Barr said he would seek their advice but noted he would make the final decision himself.
Responding to questions from Leahy and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Barr said he would commit to providing Mueller with the resources and time he needed to complete his work and pledged to ensure that Mueller wasn't fired unless there was "good cause," a standard laid out in federal regulations.
"It's unimaginable to me that Bob would ever do anything that gave rise to good cause. But in theory, if something happened that was good cause, for me it would actually take more than that," Barr said. "It would have to be pretty grave and the public interest would have to compel it. I believe right now the overarching public interest is to allow him to finish."
During Coons' time questioning Barr, he referenced the confirmation hearing of Elliot Richardson to be attorney general for then-president Richard Nixon in the midst of the Watergate investigation — noting questions that Richardson was asked about giving decision-making authority to the special prosecutor investigating Watergate.
"Richardson testified to the committee the special prosecutor's judgment would prevail," Coons told Barr. "That's not what you're saying. ... [If] you have a difference of opinion with special counsel Mueller, you won't necessarily back his decision. You might overrule it."
Barr, in response, acknowledged that to be so: "Under the regulations, there is — there is the possibility of that." Barr referenced the time passed — and experience gained — since that time, concluding that, in his view, a proper balance had been reached between independence and accountability.
"A lot of water has gone under the dam since Elliott Richardson," he said. "Existing rules I think reflect the experience of both Republican and Democratic administrations and strike the right balance."
Barr was asked, during the morning session, about his earlier interactions with Trump. He recounted a meeting he had with Trump in June 2017 in which they discussed Mueller. Barr said he was contacted by David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel and a friend of Trump, who was looking to expand the president's legal team. Barr said he wasn't interested in the job — "My wife and I were sort of looking forward to a bit of respite and I didn't want to stick my head into that meat grinder," he said — but told Friedman he'd be willing to meet with Trump.
Barr said he met with Trump at the White House and told the president he was friends with Mueller. Trump wanted to know about Mueller's integrity, Barr said, and he testified that he told the president that Mueller "is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such." Trump asked Barr if he was looking for a job, and Barr said he wasn't. He told the senators that he gave Trump his phone number and never heard from him, until more recently when he was being considered for attorney general.
Later in the afternoon, Barr faced questions about whether the president could exercise his pardon powers in illegal ways. Specifically, asked if he could issue a pardon "for the purpose of preventing testimony," as Coons asked him.
"I think that if a pardon was a quid pro quo to altering testimony, then that would definitely implicate an obstruction statute," Barr said.
As to pardoning a family member, Barr said, "The problem is: Under the Constitution is there are powers, but you can abuse a power. So the answer to your question, in my opinion, would be, yes, he does have the power to pardon a family member but he would then have to face the fact that he could be held accountable for abusing his power, or, if it was connected to some act that violates an obstruction statute, it could be obstruction."
Leahy also pressed Barr about whether he thought the president had the power to take federal funds designated for one purpose and use them to build a wall along the southern border — a move Trump has reportedly been considering. Leahy pointed to a law review article Barr wrote in the early 1990s about limits on Congress's spending power.
Barr said he wasn't saying as a general rule that the president could take money from any source and use it for any purpose, but that federal law may give the president power to move around certain money. Leahy asked if Trump could take money from the Department of Defense and use it to build a wall. Barr said that, without looking at the statute, he couldn't answer that, and it was the sort of question he'd need to consult the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel on.
Graham asked Barr to get back to Congress with the answer.