Attorney general nominee William Barr addressed concerns on Tuesday about a memo he wrote about executive powers.
He spoke for most of the morning to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill during the first day of his confirmation hearings; those hearings continued in the afternoon.
Barr has faced concerns about his views on the issue of executive powers ever since President Donald Trump nominated him to become the nation’s next attorney general on December 7.
Last year Barr wrote a legal memo criticizing the ongoing special counsel investigation for pursuing obstruction of justice charges against Trump. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) referenced the memo early during the Tuesday hearings in her opening statement.
“In the memo you conclude, I would think, that special counsel [Robert] Mueller is ‘grossly irresponsible’ for pursuing an obstruction case against the president and that pursuing the obstruction inquiry is fatally misconceived,” Feinstein said.
“So I hope we’ll be able to straighten that out during this hearing. But your memo also shows a large sweeping view of presidential authority.”
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been leading the special counsel investigation, which is looking at whether Trump or his associates colluded with Russian interests during the presidential campaign. Feinstein noted the investigation covers both the interference allegations and obstruction of justice. It’s the obstruction of justice issue that she said is a concern.
“I would like to briefly address the memorandum I wrote last June,” Barr said in his opening statement. “My memo was narrow and explained my thinking on a specific obstruction of justice theory under a single stature [that] I thought, based on media reports, the special counsel might be considering.”
Barr, 68, said he won’t let partisan politics, personal interests or any other improper considerations interfere. He also stated he had confidence in the special counsel investigation and would let it finish. His written testimony was released a day earlier, showing that he planned to address the issue.
“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,” Barr said. “Nor did it address other potential obstruction of justice theories or argue, as some have wrongly suggested, that the president cannot obstruct justice.”
Attorney General Nominee William Barr: "I believe it is vitally important that the Special Counsel be allowed to complete his investigation."
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 15, 2019
Love watching Democrats trying to trip up the consummate professional William Barr in his confirmation hearings.
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) January 15, 2019
Barr sent his memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel. Rosenstein is planning to depart once Barr is confirmed.
Barr will be replacing former Attorney General Jeff Sessions if confirmed.
Sessions left the role following a tense relationship with Trump on November 7.
Barr has previous experience in the attorney general role, having served in that position 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 a 14-0 vote.
“Will you commit to this committee that you will not allow the president or his attorneys to edit or change the special counsel report before it is submitted to Congress and the public?” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked Barr later during the hearing on Tuesday. “And will you come to Congress to explain any changed or deletions in that report?”
Barr said he would not allow the president to edit or interfere with the report. He also explained there will be two separate reports when it comes to the special counsel probe. The first report will be what the special counsel team drafts; it will be classified. The attorney general will then use that information to draft another report to share with lawmakers and the public. Barr said he is committed to being transparent.
“I will commit to providing as much information as I can, consistent with the regulations,” Barr answered. “I don’t know what kind of report is being prepared. I have no idea what acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein discussed with special counsel Mueller. If I’m confirmed, I’m going to go in and see what is being contemplated, what they agreed to, and what game plan they have in mind. But my purpose is to get as much accurate information as I can.”
Trump has repeatedly accused the special counsel team of being a biased witch hunt against him. Congressional Republicans have also expressed concerns of bias while reviewing the special counsel probe as part of their own investigation. The president has expressed dissatisfaction over Rosenstein as a result.
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 and much of the charges already issued are due to unrelated crime allegations.
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This piece has been updated to reflect new information.