What Barr Did (And Didn’t) Commit To On The Russia Probe, DOJ Independence

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Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for Bill Barr focused on how the attorney general nominee would handle key issues related to the Russia probe and keep the Justice Department independent from president known to insert himself into the DOJ’s affairs.

In his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee and answers to lawmakers’ questions, Barr sought to assuage concerns he’ll act as a flunky to President Trump, committing to allow the Russia investigation to continue unimpeded and to publicly releasing special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings to the extent the law allows.

Yet Barr notably declined to commit on other key issues—like whether his prior comments on Trump’s possible obstruction of justice rendered him incapable of independently overseeing the Mueller probe at all.

Early on in the hearing, Barr affirmed that he respected Mueller and his work.

“I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” Barr said, contradicting Trump’s frequent Twitter laments.

Barr served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush and described himself as a “good friend” of the special counsel during Tuesday’s proceedings.

Stern and reserved in a patterned blue tie, Barr vowed not to interfere with the scope of the special counsel’s investigation, to provide Mueller with the resources needed to complete his work, and only to terminate Mueller’s service with good cause.

“Frankly, it is unimaginable to me that Bob would do anything that gave rise to good cause,” Barr said. “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 have to compel it because I believe the overarching public interest is to allow him to finish.”

Pressed by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) on what he’d do if Trump pushed him to fire Mueller without good cause, Barr replied, “I would not carry out that instruction.”

Barr also committed to providing “as much transparency” as possible about Mueller’s findings. As attorney general, he would receive the special counsel’s final, confidential report. He would produce his own version of the report, and have discretion on whether his document is released to Congress—and the public—or not.

Republican senators including newly-elected committee chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) showed a newfound interest in making sure Mueller’s findings are made available. Grassley said that taxpayers “ought to know what their money was spent for.”

“I am going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations that are part of the special counsel regulations,” Barr told Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who pursued a similar line of questioning.

Barr was a bit more wishy-washy on whether he’d commit to informing Congress about any changes or deletions made in his version of the report.

“That would be my intent,” Barr said. “I have to say that the rules — I don’t know what kind of report is being prepared. I have no idea. And I have no idea what Acting Attorney General Rosenstein has discussed with special counsel Mueller. If I’m confirmed, I’m going to go in and see what’s being contemplated and what they’ve agreed to and what their interpretation — you know, what game plan they have in mind.” 

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Coons and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), asked Barr for clarity on how he would navigate communications between the Justice Department and the White House.

Barr said that only the attorney general and deputy attorney general should be in contact with the White House on criminal matters, and that he may “tighten up” restrictions on conversations between the executive branch and the DOJ. He offered little indication about what steps he’d take.

On several other issues of concern to Democratic lawmakers, Barr equivocated.

Barr said that Trump may legitimately be able to claim executive privilege to block some parts of Mueller’s report from release. He also declined to fully commit to deferring to Mueller’s conclusions.

“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?” Coons asked at one point.

“Under the regulations there is the possibility of that, but this committee would not — you know, would be aware of it,” Barr replied. “A lot of water has gone under the dam since [the tenure of Nixon attorney general] Elliott Richardson, and a lot of different administrations on both parties have experimented with special counsel arrangements, and the existing rules I think reflect the experience of both Republican and Democratic administrations and strike the right balance.”

He was also more circumspect about another core issue: whether he should be allowed to oversee the Mueller probe, given the unsolicited memo Barr submitted to the Justice Department last year arguing that Mueller’s obstruction of justice theory against Trump was “fatally misconceived.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said that Trump’s open, constant criticism of the Russia “witch hunt” and the FBI made it impossible to believe Barr would not be called upon to “cross the line” as attorney general. Leahy asked if Barr would commit to seeking and following the DOJ’s ethics officials on whether he should oversee the Mueller probe given Trump’s perspective.

Barr stopped short of committing to follow ethics officials’ recommendations on a recusal.

“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,” Barr said. “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.”

Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker notably sought the advice of DOJ ethics officials on whether he should recuse from overseeing the probe, given his harsh public criticism of Mueller’s actions. The DOJ recommended that Whitaker do so, but Whitaker ultimately took the advice of his own advisers, and did not.

This post has been updated.

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