Barr Is Pressed to Keep Trump at Arm’s Length
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled the attorney general nominee on Tuesday
Attorney general nominee William Barr said Tuesday he wouldn’t unlawfully protect the president when he was pressed on what his role would be if he’s confirmed.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) asked him whether he would fire special counsel Robert Mueller or change the special counsel regulations to do so if instructed by the president.
Coons also asked whether Barr would resign if the president gave him such an order. Barr replied that he would not fire the special counsel without just cause.
“I think those special counsel regulations should stay in place for the duration of this investigation,” Barr answered. “I would not carry out that instruction.”
President Donald Trump has been the focus of an ongoing federal investigation. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been looking into whether or not the president or his associates colluded with Russian interests during the presidential campaign of 2016.
Barr said he would not unlawfully protect the president when repeatedly asked throughout his confirmation hearing.
Coons pointed to the case of former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who resigned when ordered by former President Richard Nixon to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate scandal. The regulations now prevent the attorney general from firing a special counsel without cause, such as misconduct or dereliction of duty.
“Is there any sense that it is the attorney general’s job to protect the president?” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) asked not long after that.
“There is probably a list of issues you can imagine needing to resign [over] because of what you were asked to do in the space of protecting the president,” added Sasse.
Barr said his view is that the attorney general has three main roles: providing advice to the president, being a policy adviser on law enforcement issues, and being the top law enforcement officer. He also said the attorney general should be sympathetic to the policy objectives of the administration.
But he added that does not include unlawfully protecting the president.
“If I was ever asked to do something I thought I was unlawful and [was] directed to do that, I wouldn’t do it,” Barr said. “I would resign rather than do it.”
Trump has repeatedly accused the special counsel team of conducting a biased witch hunt against him. Barr said Tuesday he doesn’t believe Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt. He said at a few points during the confirmation hearings that he’s known Mueller for a long time and trusted him.
Senate Democrats and other critics argue Barr believes in strong executive powers that could threaten the ongoing investigation against the president. He wrote a memo last year criticizing the special counsel in how it reportedly might pursue obstruction of justice charges.
He clarified Tuesday he was talking about a very specific statute.
“My memo was narrow and explained my thinking on a specific obstruction of justice theory under a single stature,” Barr said in his opening statement. “The memo did not address or in any other way question the special counsel’s core investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the election. Nor did it address other potential obstruction of justice theories or argue, as some have wrongly suggested, that the president cannot obstruct justice.”
Barr later added he wasn’t arguing there are no circumstances in which a president could obstruct justice. Rather, he said it comes down to whether the president did under the federal statute being applied. Barr also stressed he would not allow partisan politics, personal interests or any other improper considerations to interfere with any investigation.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the committee during his own confirmation process that he would seek and follow advice from ethics officials if confronted with a conflict of interest. He did end up doing that — by recusing himself from the special counsel probe. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has not recused himself from the investigation since taking the role.
“It is very clear that the president does not want an attorney general who will recuse himself from the Mueller investigation,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said. “[You made] it clear that you’re basically going to follow the Whitaker model. Can you understand why that is not totally reassuring to us? These are not normal times. This is not 27 years ago. Today the president is Donald Trump who will do anything to protect himself.”
Hirono added the president wants Barr to protect him from legal scrutiny, such as that of a special counsel. She pointed to his memo, which she referred to as a manifesto, about obstruction of justice charges against the president.
She also mentioned that he — Barr — met with the president’s defense attorneys and has written op-eds defending the president.
“The regulations and responsibilities of the attorney general as the head of the agency vest that responsibility in the attorney general,” Barr answered. “I’m not going to surrender the responsibilities of the attorney general to get the title. I don’t need the title.”
The special counsel team has taken down a handful of former associates of the president since launching its investigation in May 2017. But it has yet to connect the president himself to any collusion allegations; much of the charges already issued are due to unrelated crime allegations.
Barr has previous experience in the role, having served as attorney general for a few years under former President George H. W. Bush. The Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed him by a voice vote just 36 days after he was nominated.
Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Dela.) led the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time — and advanced him with 14-0 vote.
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