WASHINGTON ― William Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, raised doubts on Tuesday that he would release to the public the complete final report by the special counsel team led by Robert Mueller.
Barr, seeking to reassure members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday about his ability to oversee the probe into Russian efforts to skew the 2016 presidential election, called Mueller a “straight shooter” and said he didn’t believe the special counsel was overseeing a “witch hunt” ― as Trump has repeatedly branded the investigation.
But Barr, testifying at his confirmation hearing, said that under his interpretation of the special counsel regulations, he didn’t believe that Mueller’s final report was required to be made public. Barr said he believed Mueller’s report would be “confidential,” but that as attorney general he would issue a public summary of its findings.
Barr also said he believed that the attorney general had some “flexibility and discretion” about what he could disclose to the public after the Mueller investigation concluded.
A section of the regulations for special counsels says that, at the end of a probe, the counsel’s office “shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by” investigators. The regulations also state that the attorney general “may determine that public release of these reports would be in the public interest, to the extent that release would comply with applicable legal restrictions.”
Barr said his “objective and goal” would be to push for as much transparency as he could.
“All I can say at this stage… is that I’m going to try to get the information out there, consistent with these regulations,” he said.
Barr said he’d likely make public any conclusions by the Mueller investigation, adding that it was hard “to conceive of a conclusion that would run afoul of the regs as currently written.”
Barr also testified that he would not carry out any order from the president to fire Mueller without good cause and that he was “not going to be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.” If someone tried to stop a bonafide federal investigation in order to cover up wrongdoing, Barr said, “I would resign.”
Barr struggled to imagine a scenario in which Mueller, a longtime friend, would take an action that could lead to termination.
“There hasn’t been a special counsel removed since Archibald Cox,” Barr said, referring to President Richard Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. “And that didn’t work out.”
It remains unclear when Mueller will issue a final report, but indications are that his investigation will be wrapping up in the coming months. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expected to depart the Justice Department after Barr’s anticipated confirmation, and as attorney general he would oversee the investigation unless he recuses himself.
Barr would not commit to following the recommendations of career ethics officials about whether he might need to recuse himself but said he would consult with the officials.
The man Barr would replace as head of the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions, quickly recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe because he played a direct role in helping Trump’s presidential campaign. But Sessions’ recusal ― approved by ethics watchdogs ― caused Trump to continually berate him and played a major role in his departure from the administration.
Barr’s confirmation, with Republicans in control of the Senate, appears a foregone conclusion. His Tuesday comments also may have eased some of the concerns Democratic senators have raised about him serving as attorney general. But several commentators said they did not think his commitments concerning the Russia probe went far enough.
Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, said Barr “did nothing today to allay fears that he would be an attorney general who would enable President Trump to continue his abuse of executive authority.”
Kevin McAlister of Law Works said Barr “left himself too much wiggle room to allow him to decline to release the special counsel’s full findings to Congress and the American people for everyone to read.”
Barr, 68, told senators he was hesitant to take the attorney general’s job and that he had been looking forward to spending time with his family after a long legal career. But he said he ultimately decided to take the position out of a sense of duty.
He served as attorney general during the latter part of President George H.W. Bush’s administration.