William Barr carefully distances himself from Trump on key issues

William Barr, left, meets with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who oversaw the hearing Tuesday on Barr's nomination as attorney general.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

William Barr, President 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 not fire Mueller without good cause.

“I would not carry out that instruction” if asked to do so, Barr testified, adding he would not be “bullied into doing something I think is wrong.”

On the first day of a two-day confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr gingerly distanced himself from the president on several key issues, a move that appeared to mollify Democrats on the panel concerned about whether he would stand up to the White House if necessary.

The 68-year-old Republican lawyer, who previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, said he had made no promises to Trump and that the president had “absolutely” not asked him to meddle in Mueller’s inquiry 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, and he called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a potent rival” of the United States. Trump at times has challenged the U.S. assessment and has relentlessly praised Putin.


“I think the Russians interfered or attempted to interfere in the election,” Barr said, “and we have to get to the bottom of it.”

He did not categorically rule out recusing himself from supervising the Mueller probe, saying he would consult with career ethics lawyers at the Justice Department in light of his critical comments about the investigation in a memo last year. But he also did not commit to following their advice.

“I would consult with them,” Barr said, “and I would make a decision in good faith based on the laws and the facts that are evident at that time.”

If confirmed, Barr would replace Jeff Sessions, who was forced to resign in November after a rocky tenure. Trump had bitterly criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation in early 2017, a rift between them that never healed.

Barr 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 conducted its inquiry into whether Hillary Clinton mishandled classified information when she was secretary of State.

Barr’s testimony contained no bombshells and he reiterated a pledge he made Monday 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 Trump’s frequent line of attack on the special counsel 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 “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 easily confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate and is likely to pick up Democratic votes given his promises to protect Mueller and Barr’s widely respected legal career.

He served as attorney general from 1991 through 1993 and before that served as deputy attorney general and assistant attorney general.

For Barr, the law is clearly a family affair.

Sitting behind him at the hearing were his daughters: Margaret, a former federal prosecutor; Patricia, a lawyer for the House Agriculture Committee; and Mary, a longtime federal prosecutor working in the deputy attorney general’s office.

Mary was joined by her husband, Mike, who is an attorney in the Justice Department’s national security division, and their 8-year-old son, Liam, “who will someday be in the Department of Justice,” Barr quipped. One senator joked that the boy should go to medical school instead to earn more money.

Barr fielded scores of questions on issues that in another era could have overshadowed the hearing.

He said he supported a national law that prohibited marijuana “everywhere” but told Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) that he would respect California and other states that had legalized the drug.

“To the extent that people are complying with state laws, distribution and production and so forth,” he testified, “we’re not going to go after that.”

He said he backed Trump’s desire to build a wall along the southern border, though he did not seem to favor one as extensive as the president had suggested. “I’m advocating a system, a barrier system, in some places,” he testified.

He added that a wall would “certainly” halt the flow of drugs, though “in some places it may not be necessary to have what people imagine as a wall.”

Democrats pressed him about his tough-on-crime strategies when he was attorney general and their impact on high incarceration rates, particularly among African Americans. Barr defended his efforts, saying he had confronted violent-crime rates that were “the highest in American history.”

Even so, he said, he would enforce a new law that rolled back some of the harsh penalties of the 1990s.

Democrats grilled Barr about his previous criticism of the Mueller investigation, and some suggested he should step away from overseeing the special counsel.

Barr had questioned the political makeup of the special counsel’s team and wrote a lengthy memo last year that described Mueller’s investigation into whether the president had obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 as based on a legal theory that he called “fatally flawed.”

In response, Barr sought to downplay his analysis, saying it was based in part on “speculation” about Mueller’s investigation.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein is overseeing 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 agreed that Sessions made the right decision in recusing himself from the Russia investigation because he had worked on Trump’s campaign.