William Barr Confirmation Hearing: Attorney General Nominee Says Mueller Must Be Allowed to Complete Inquiry

William Barr Confirmation Hearing: Attorney General Nominee Says Mueller Must Be Allowed to Complete Inquiry

By The New York Times


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Senators are pressing William P. Barr on how he will maintain Justice Department independence from President Trump’s intrusions.

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William P. Barr, the president’s nominee for attorney general, faces questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee. He vowed on Monday to allow the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to complete his Russia investigation.Published OnCreditCreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
  • Mr. Barr, who also served as attorney general under President George Bush, pledged to allow the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to finish his investigation and to withstand political pressure from Mr. Trump.

  • Known for his unusually expansive views of executive power, Mr. Barr qualified some of his beliefs. He emphasized legal limits on the presidency and law enforcement independence.

  • Mr. Barr defended as “entirely proper” an unsolicited memo he wrote criticizing Mr. Mueller’s examination of whether the president obstructed justice.

UPDATED: 11 A.M.

Mr. Barr used his opening remarks to the committee to clarify that he has no intention of firing Mr. Mueller before his work is done and to indicate that he would provide “as much transparency as I can consistent with the law” around the investigation’s results. The rule of law, he insisted, should be above and outside of the politics that divide the nation.

“It is in the best interest of everyone — the president, Congress and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work,” Mr. Barr said. He added: “I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish.”

Mr. Mueller is believed to be in the final stages of his inquiry, which he took over from the F.B.I. in May 2017 after agents opened it nearly two and a half years ago.

“The country needs a credible resolution of these issues,” Mr. Barr said.

Pressed later by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, if he would allow the White House to “correct and put spin on” a Mueller report before it was released publicly, Mr. Burr gave a firm no. “That will not happen,” he said.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, has repeatedly said that the White House should be allowed to review and edit the special counsel’s work product before the Justice Department makes it public, if it chooses to make it public.

— Nicholas Fandos

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Mr. Barr is certain to face questions on presidential power.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

11:20 A.M.

Mr. Barr has long advanced an unusually expansive view of executive authority. He has portrayed the president, not the attorney general, as the nation’s top law-enforcement official, and suggested that Congress cannot bar a president from using his executive powers — like to pardon someone or “start or stop a law enforcement proceeding” — in a corrupt way.

This has raised the question of whether his permissive theories would unleash Mr. Trump, who is not known for his self-restraint. But in several ways on Tuesday, Mr. Barr appeared to walk back or qualify some of his earlier writings, putting greater emphasis on the Justice Department’s independence and legal limits on the presidency.

For example, Mr. Barr said that if a president directed the Justice Department to close an investigation to protect himself or his family, that would violate the Constitution. And asked by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, whether a president could pardon someone in exchange for a promise not to incriminate him, Mr. Barr said “that would be a crime.”

— Charlie Savage

11:08 A.M.

When asked by Mr. Leahy whether he should recuse himself from the Mueller investigation over his memo criticizing one aspect of it, Mr. Barr vowed to consult government ethics lawyers.

Oversight of the investigation has been a fraught issue at the Justice Department. Mr. Trump has long openly sought a loyalist to oversee the inquiry, and he quickly soured on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he decided to recuse himself from it, ultimately handing over supervision to the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.

The acting attorney general installed after the president fired Mr. Sessions, Matthew G. Whitaker, decided last month not to recuse despite the recommendation of ethics advisers that he do so because he had publicly criticized the investigation on CNN and elsewhere before he joined the department.

— Katie Benner

11:05 A.M.

A month after Mr. Mueller was appointed in 2017, one of the president’s confidants reached out to Mr. Barr to gauge his interest in joining Mr. Trump’s legal team. Mr. Barr demurred, telling the confidant, David Friedman, who is the ambassador to Israel, that he had recently taken on a corporate client. “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder,” Mr. Barr explained on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barr briefly met with president, who asked how well he knew Mr. Mueller and whether he considered the special counsel to be straightforward and fair.

“I told him how well I know Bob Mueller and the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this was all over and so forth.” Mr. Barr told senators. He said he gave the president his cellphone number but did not hear from him again until he was being considered in recent months to replace Mr. Sessions as attorney general.

— Michael S. Schmidt

10:53 A.M.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the committee’s former chairman, fought last year to shepherd through major revisions to federal sentencing and prison laws. He sought assurances that Mr. Barr, who has been critical of similar proposed changes in the past, would implement them.

The short answer was yes, but Mr. Barr bristled at the suggestion he was hostile to the bill, which lowers mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, promotes anti-recidivism programs, and expands early release. He said he viewed tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s, when he was last in office, as responsible for the ensuing drop in violent crime.

“I don’t think comparing the policies that were in effect in 1992 to the situation now is really fair,” he told Mr. Grassley. He added, “I think the time was right to take stock and make changes to our penal system based on our current experience.”

— Nicholas Fandos

10:38 A.M.

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Mr. Barr faced questions about a memo he wrote in June that was critical of one line of investigation by the special counsel.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Mr. Barr defended as “entirely proper” his decision to write an unsolicited, lengthy memo to the Trump administration legal team in June arguing that Mr. Mueller should not be permitted to investigate the president for violating criminal obstruction-of-justice laws based on how he chose to exercise his constitutional powers, like to fire a subordinate or order an investigation closed.

Mr. Barr stressed that he was “in the dark” about what Mr. Mueller’s obstruction theory was, and said that he was merely speculating. He emphasized that his concern was the “ramifications down the road” of establishing such a rule.

“One theory in particular that appeared to be under consideration under a specific statute concerned me because I thought it would involve stretching the statute beyond what was intended and would do it in a way that would have serious adverse consequences for all agencies that are involved in the administration of justice, especially the Department of Justice,” he said. “And I thought it would have a chilling effect going forward over time.”

— Charlie Savage

10:32 A.M.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the new committee chairman, brought up the F.B.I.’s newly revealed counterintelligence investigation into whether the president was working with the Russians, asking incredulously whether Mr. Barr had “heard of such a thing in all the time you have been associated with the department.”

Mr. Barr answered that he had not, an indication of the highly unusual nature and magnitude of F.B.I. officials’ decision to begin investigating Mr. Trump in May 2017 after his firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director. Mr. Graham asked about “checks and balances” on the F.B.I. for opening an investigation with such explosive implications. Mr. Barr said there were none outside the bureau, leaving an opening for Mr. Graham, who seized on it.

“Would you promise me and this committee to look into this and tell us whether or not in an appropriate way a counterintelligence investigation was opened up by somebody at the F.B.I. or Department of Justice into president Trump?” he asked.

Mr. Barr said he would.

— Adam Goldman

10:22 A.M.

Just weeks into his administration, Mr. Trump soured on his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over his recusal from the Russia investigation on the advice of Justice Department ethics advisers. But Mr. Graham, who is friendly with the president, said that he came down on the other side of the issue.

“He did the right thing to recuse himself,” Mr. Graham said of Mr. Sessions as he questioned Mr. Barr about his view.

Mr. Barr agreed. “I am not sure of all the facts, but I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself,” he said.

— Michael S. Schmidt

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Senators Charles E. Grassley, Lindsey Graham and Dianne Feinstein listen to Mr. Barr. CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

10:12 A.M.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, read excerpts from Mr. Barr’s writings on a president’s purported power to control all law-enforcement activity and said she intended to press him on whether he would resist political interference from Mr. Trump, noting his calls for new criminal inquiries into Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

“It’s important that the next attorney general be able to strongly resist pressure, whether from the administration or Congress to conduct investigations for political purposes,” she said. “You must have the integrity, the strength and the fortitude to tell the president ‘no,’ regardless of the consequences.”

In his opening statement, Mr. Barr appeared to embrace that principle.

“The attorney general must ensure that the administration of justice, the enforcement of the law, is above and away from politics,” he said. “Nothing could be more destructive of our system of government, of the rule of law, or the Department of Justice as an institution than any toleration of political interference with the enforcement of the law.”

— Charlie Savage

10:02 A.M.

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Mr. Barr introduced members of his family during his opening statement. He noted most of his children are government lawyers.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Mr. Barr briefly spoke of his commitment to public service and the Justice Department. He noted that most of his children are government lawyers, including one in a top position at the Justice Department. One of his three daughters coordinates the department’s response to the opioid crisis, and a son-in-law also works in the department’s national security division.

“Somebody needs to make money in the family,” joked Mr. Graham.

— Katie Benner

9:54 A.M.

Mr. Graham established a tone of comity as he gaveled in his first major hearing as the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He cited the committee’s bipartisan work on passing a criminal justice overhaul late last year as a template for confronting disagreements.

Mr. Graham, one of Capitol Hill’s most reliable personalities, struck a note of humor and self-awareness. He said hoped that the more measured side of his personality, which he called the “immigration Lindsey,” would show up; but said that he knows a darker side could show itself to the committee. “The other guy is there, too,” he said. “I don’t like him any more than you do.”

— Katie Benner

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Senator Lindsey Graham gaveled in his first major hearing as chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member, sits right of him.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

9:50 A.M.

The last time the Judiciary Committee held a major confirmation hearing, accusations of sexual misconduct against Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh cleaved the panel’s Republicans and Democrats more deeply than any nominee in generations. Mr. Graham began Tuesday’s session with a note of hope that the committee could find common ground.

“Last year was tough,” Mr. Graham said bluntly, praising his predecessor as chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, and the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, for navigating in good faith “the environment in which we live.”

“I don’t see them getting better overnight,” Mr. Graham said. “But I do see them getting better if we all want them to.”

Some changes were evident. For the first time, two women are sitting on the committee’s Republican side, joining several Democratic women. And Mr. Graham ticked through shared policy interests like immigration and online political ads on which he envisioned bipartisan cooperation.

— Nicholas Fandos

When Mr. Barr was nominated to serve as attorney general the first time in 1991, the Democratic Senate unanimously confirmed him by voice vote. He should not expect such a smooth ride this time around, but with Republicans in control of the chamber by a 53-to-47 majority, his confirmation appears to be on track.

Two wild cards could scramble the usual partisan divide.

A handful of moderate Republicans facing re-election fights in 2020 or simply skeptical of Mr. Trump’s intentions could theoretically swing against Mr. Barr if he fails to convince them that he would stand up for the special counsel. If these senators — Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Mitt Romney of Utah and others — banded together with a united Democratic caucus, they could kill the confirmation.

But Democrats may also be motivated to quickly move Mr. Barr through confirmation. They have been highly critical of the acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, a Trump loyalist whom they view as a direct threat to Mr. Mueller, and want him out of office as quickly as possible. If they view Mr. Barr as sincere in his public assurances about the investigation, it is a swap many Democrats might eagerly make.

Nicholas Fandos

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