Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign was front and center during William Barr’s hearing Tuesday, with the attorney general nominee pledging to remain independent.
In largely cordial exchanges with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr sought to clarify his positions on executive privilege when asked if his memo criticizing Mueller’s probe would compromise his ability to oversee the investigation. Barr had written in the memo to the Department of Justice that Trump’s firing of his former FBI director, James Comey, could not constitute an obstruction of justice.
But during the committee hearing, Barr emphasized his personal and professional respect for Mueller, saying he would not interfere with his work.
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Here are some of the key moments from the confirmation hearing:
Barr vowed to protect the Mueller investigation
The attorney general nominee said “I certainly think it would be an abuse of his power” when asked if a president would be prohibited from halting a criminal investigation for personal reasons based on Barr’s understanding of the president’s constitutional duties.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) later asked Barr: “Are there any circumstances that would cause you to terminate the investigation or any component of it?”
“Under the regulations, Bob Mueller can only be terminated for good cause,” Barr responded. “Frankly, it is unimaginable to me that Bob would do anything that gave rise to good cause.”
Barr’s admiration for Mueller was apparent when he raised the stakes for ending his investigation: “But in theory, if something happened that was good cause, for me it would actually take more than that. It would have to be pretty grave and the public interest would essentially have to compel it, because I believe right now the overarching public interest is to allow him to finish.“
Barr denied his DOJ memo was a job “application.”
Barr’s critics feared his memo concerning Mueller’s probe into obstruction of justice was intended to demonstrate loyalty to Trump in order to secure the position. But Barr emphasized he was hesitant to accept the job to begin with, confirming reports that he offered alternatives to fill the position before accepting.
“That’s ludicrous,” Barr said of the theory. “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 intention than writing an 18-page legal memorandum and sending it to the Department of Justice. “
Barr said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was right to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation sparked a feud with the president that finally boiled over when Trump ousted Sessions in November. Barr supported Sessions’ recusal during Tuesday’s hearing, but stopped short of saying the former attorney general’s prominence in the Trump campaign posed a conflict of interest to overseeing the Mueller investigation.
“I’m not sure of all of the facts but I believe he did the right thing to recuse himself,” Barr said.
Barr did not say he would recuse himself… but he didn’t say he wouldn’t either.
Leahy turned the question of recusal on Barr himself, telling him Trump would likely “expect you to do his bidding.” Leahy asked Barr if he would seek and follow the advice of the department’s career ethics officials on whether he would recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation.
“I will seek the advice of the career ethics personnel, but under the regulations, I make the decision as the head of the agency as to my own recusal. So I certainly would consult with them and at the end of the day, I would make a decision in good faith based on the laws and the facts that are evident at that time,” Barr said.
But Barr distanced himself from any possibility of a conflict of interest of his own, saying in such instances, a recusal would be “mandatory.”