WASHINGTON ― William Barr, the once and likely future attorney general, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe Robert Mueller “would be involved in a witch hunt” and pledged to act with independence and not fire the special counsel without due cause.
While Barr committed to seeking the advice of career Justice Department ethics officials on whether he should recuse himself from the Mueller probe because of his past comments, Barr said he would make the decision himself “in good faith,” based on the laws and facts.
Barr, a 68-year-old who first served as attorney general during George H.W. Bush’s administration, also said he believed that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions probably did the right thing by recusing himself from the Russia investigation — a decision that drew the ire of President Donald Trump and led to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller as special counsel and Sessions’ forced resignation in November.
Barr has come under scrutiny for writing a 19-page memo that criticized an aspect of the special counsel probe led by Mueller, whom Barr described as a longtime friend. Barr sought to reassure senators that he could be trusted to oversee the investigation, which appears to be entering a critical stage.
Barr said he believed that “the Russians interfered or attempted to interfere” with the 2016 presidential election and that it was important to get to the bottom of the matter. He also sought to downplay the significance of his memo on the probe, saying that he and other commentators were largely speculating based on the limited public information about the investigation.
“We’re all in the dark,” Barr said of the inquiry. “Everyone who thinks and talks about it doesn’t have the facts.”
At the hearing, he disclosed that he raised his concerns about the obstruction-of-justice component of the investigation during a lunch meeting with Rosenstein in early 2018. Barr said that Rosenstein had no visible reaction to his criticism, describing Rosenstein as “sphinx-like.”
Barr also discussed a conversation with Trump in June 2017, when Trump was looking to expand his private legal team. Barr said a friend who was working to build the team reached out to him and asked what he had said about the president publicly and whether he had any conflicts. Barr said he told the friend that he didn’t believe he could take on the “burden” of another client and that he didn’t want to “stick my head into that meat grinder.”
He met with Trump nonetheless. Barr said that he believed the brief meeting took place before a White House staff meeting and that the president asked Barr about how well he knew Mueller.
“I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such,” Barr said he told Trump. Barr said he gave Trump his phone number and didn’t hear from him again about joining the private team.
Barr said that he felt that he was in a position in life where he could do the right thing and not really care about the consequences. He heaped praise on Mueller and said it would be difficult to imagine a situation arising in which he would fire Mueller for cause.
“It’s unimaginable to me that Bob would ever do anything that gave rise to good cause,” Barr said. “I believe right now the overarching public interest would be for him to finish.”