US President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general has defended his decision to send a memo to the Justice Department criticising the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
William Barr said he was simply trying to warn senior Justice Department officials against “stretching a statute” to conclude that the president had obstructed justice.
The comments came at his Senate confirmation hearing, where he sought to provide assurance he would not undermine Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s ties with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
William Barr sent a 19-page memo arguing against potential obstruction of justice charges to Trumpâs personal defense lawyers and Jared Kushnerâs defense team.— Rep. Ted Deutch (@RepTedDeutch) January 15, 2019
If DOJ ethics lawyers recommend his recusal based on these facts, Barr should commit to following their guidance.
He said he does not believe Mr Mueller, a friend of 30 years who once worked for him at the Justice Department, would be involved in a “witch hunt” – as Mr Trump has labelled it.
And he said he believed former attorney general Jeff Sessions was right to recuse himself from matters involving the special counsel probe – a decision Mr Trump railed against during Mr Sessions’ time in the office.
Mr Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee he raised his concerns about Mr Mueller’s investigation into whether the president had tried to stymie the Russia probe at a lunch last year with deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr Mueller and oversees his work. Mr Rosenstein did not respond and was “sphinx-like”, Mr Barr recalled.
He said he followed up with a memo to Mr Rosenstein in June that argued that Mr Mueller should not be able to interview the president about his decision to fire James Comey as FBI director.
He said there were other instances in which he had given advice to the Justice Department, such as cautioning against a prosecution of Democratic senator Robert Menendez.
Mr Barr also told senators that “it is vitally important” that Mr Mueller be allowed to complete his investigation, and said he believes Congress and the public should learn the results.
He also insisted that Mr Trump never sought any promises, assurances or commitments before selecting him to be the country’s chief law enforcement officer.
In releasing written evidence before the hearing, the Justice Department moved to pre-empt the most significant questions Mr Barr is likely to face from Democrats on the panel — among them, whether he can oversee without bias or interference the final stages of Mr Mueller’s probe, and whether he will permit the findings to be made public.
“I believe 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.
The special counsel is required to report his findings confidentially to the Justice Department. Mr Barr stopped short of directly pledging to release Mr Mueller’s report, but he expressed general support for disclosing the findings, whatever they may be.
“For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” Mr Barr said.
“I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decisions.”