‘Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such…’
(Del Quentin Wilber, Los Angeles Times) WASHINGTON — William P. Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, told a Senate panel Tuesday that he did not believe special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was on a “witch hunt” and said he would consult with ethics lawyers on whether he needs to step aside from supervising the probe in light of his critical comments about its direction.
Barr, who served as attorney general nearly three decades ago, also promised to look into the FBI’s reported counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was secretly working for Russia after he took office, and how the bureau handled its inquiry into whether Hillary Clinton mishandled classified information when she was secretary of state.
In his first morning of an expected two-day confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the 68-year-old Republican lawyer said he had made no promises to Trump and that the president had not sought any when they discussed his leading the Justice Department.
Barr also acknowledged that he believed a U.S. intelligence determination that a Kremlin-backed operation played a role in the 2016 presidential campaign. “I think the Russians interfered or attempted to interfere in the election and we have to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Barr’s initial testimony contained no bombshells and he reiterated a pledge he made Monday in prepared testimony to allow Mueller to finish his work and to make public as much of his final report as possible.
In response to questions from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the newly installed chairman of the committee, Barr said he was close friends with Mueller and believed the former FBI director was a man of high integrity. They worked together at the Justice Department in the early 1990s.
“I do not believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” Barr said, rebutting a frequent line of attack used by Trump to describe the special counsel’s investigation.
Barr confirmed that he met briefly with Trump in June 2017 about possibly representing the president as a defense attorney. He said he wasn’t interested because he was busy in his private practice.
Barr said Trump had expressed an interest in his friendship with Mueller. He said he told the president that “the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this was all over and so forth.”
“I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such,” Barr added.
He did not speak again with the president, Barr testified, until they discussed his nomination to be the attorney general.
Barr is expected to be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate and is likely to pick up Democratic votes given his promises to protect Mueller and his widely respected legal career.
He served as attorney general from 1991 through 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, and before that served as deputy attorney general and assistant attorney general.
In an effort to deflect concerns from Democrats about how he would handle Mueller, and Barr’s previous critical comments about the probe, the Justice Department released Barr’s prepared testimony Monday. He read it aloud in the hearing, repeating that it was “vitally important” that the special counsel be allowed to complete his investigation.
“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,” Barr testified. “The country needs a credible resolution of these issues.”
Barr told Graham he would look into reports that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump after he abruptly fired FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017.
The FBI was concerned that Trump may be wittingly or unwittingly working on behalf of Russia, according to a report Friday by The New York Times.
On Monday, Trump became the first U.S. president to publicly deny that he secretly worked for Moscow against American interests, pouring scorn on media reports that raised fresh questions about his unusual conduct with Russian officials.
“I never worked for Russia,” Trump told reporters indignantly.
Republicans have criticized the FBI investigation of the president as an abuse of the bureau’s authority. Democrats have cited it as further evidence that Trump’s efforts to cultivate favor in Moscow should raise alarm bells.
Barr also promised Graham he would investigate the circumstances surrounding FBI employees who sent disparaging text messages about Trump during the 2016 campaign while investigating Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Peter Strzok was the lead agent on the FBI’s investigation into whether Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, had mishandled classified material while using a private email server as secretary of state under President Barack Obama. He later transferred to the Mueller probe as its lead agent.
Strzok was removed from that team — and later fired from the FBI — when the Justice Department inspector general uncovered his text messages with Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer at the time with whom he was having an affair. They called Trump an “idiot” and worried he would become president.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded the messages sowed doubt about the integrity of the Clinton investigation but found no evidence that political bias had influenced the probe.
Democrats have raised questions about Barr’s past comments that were critical of the Mueller investigation and about whether such musings should require him to step away from overseeing the special counsel.
Barr had questioned the political makeup of the special counsel’s team, for example, and also wrote a lengthy memo he sent to the Justice Department last year that described Mueller’s investigation of potential obstruction of justice by the president in firing Comey as being “fatally flawed.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Mueller probe. Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, refused to recuse himself despite the recommendations of a career ethics official that he take such a step.
Barr testified he would seek guidance from career ethics officials at the Justice Department but would not commit to following their advice.
“I would consult with them and I would make a decision in good faith based on the laws and the facts that are evident at that time,” Barr said.
Barr agreed that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the right decision in recusing himself from the Russia investigation because he had worked on Trump’s campaign.
The decision angered Trump and led to the deterioration of his relationship with his attorney general. Sessions resigned on Nov. 7 at Trump’s request.
Barr’s full first-day testimony can be viewed below:
©2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.