Senate Presses Barr on Recusal Over Mueller Criticism

Attorney General nominee William Barr is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. As he did almost 30 years ago, Barr is appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to make the case he’s qualified to serve as attorney general. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Denying that his public comments on the Russia investigation have already put his impartiality in doubt, Attorney General nominee William Barr refused at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday to say whether he will recuse himself. 

“I’m not going to surrender the responsibilities in order to get the title,” Barr quipped in a particularly tense exchange with Senator Mazie Hirono.

The Hawaii Democrat put the question to Barr bluntly.

“Trump will do anything to protect himself,” Hirono said. “He wants you, who has written a manifesto about why the president should be protected from obstruction of justice [charges]. … Why won’t you simply follow Sessions’ lead and do whats ethics officials suggested he do – recuse?” 

The decision by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is one that indisputably put his standing with President Donald Trump in jeopardy. Indeed the attorney general post is only open because Sessions resigned at the president’s request in November following more than a year of public criticism.

“We all acknowledge Sessions may not have wanted to recuse, but he did,” Hirono reminded Barr on Tuesday.

On the path to confirmation, Trump’s pick for attorney general has faced heavy scrutiny over his decision last year to send lawyers for the Trump administration a 19-page memo, which theorized that Mueller was investigating the president improperly.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Barr about how he plans to withstand pressure from Trump on the Russia probe.

“I can almost guarantee you, [the president] will cross the line at some point,” Leahy said.

Barr replied that he would consult with other Justice Department officials, including the department’s ethics office, as necessary, but that in the end the decision to recuse would be his.

Questioning how Barr would reconcile loyalty to the department and the public against what he owed the president, Leahy asked whether there any circumstance that would cause him to terminate the Mueller investigation.

“Bob could only be terminated for good cause and it’s unimaginable to me that Bob would do anything that would give rise to that good cause,” Barr said of Mueller.

The reply aligned with written testimony Barr provided Monday in advance of what will be a two-day confirmation process before the Judiciary Committee.

“I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch Bob will be allowed to finish,” Barr told the committee.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member, pressed Barr about whether he had the “strength and fortitude” to deny the president a request if it were improper.

Defending his ability to withstand political pressure if confirmed, Barr told the Senate he would owe loyalty to the public as well as President Donald Trump.

“I think the attorney general’s job is both: to protect against interference but to provide oversight to make sure that in each individual case, the same rule that would be applied broadly is being applied to the individual,” Barr said.

Though he assured the senators that any findings in Mueller’s report would be disclosed to the public, Barr also said there could be some restrictions.

Barr explained when pressed that he would reveal “as much as I can” regarding findings about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The same will go for any of Mueller’s findings regarding obstruction aspects of his investigation.

Raising the possibility that the president or his attorneys would try to alter the findings, Senator Richard Blumenthal asked Barr if he would come to Congress first to alert them of changes. The Connecticut Democrat also asked Barr to specify what information he might consider omitting from Mueller’s public report – like the reasoning behind certain subpoenas – and whether he would inform Congress first.

“I will provide as much information as I can, consistent with the regulations,” Barr repeated.

The nominee pushed back, however, when Blumenthal asked him to pledge that he would effectively overrule attempts by the administration to modify the report.

“You would not like it if I made some pledge to the president that I would exercise my responsibilities in a certain way,” Barr said. “And I won’t make that pledge to this committee, that I would exercise my responsibilities in a certain way that you wanted.” 

Defending his decision to pen the Mueller memo, Barr noted Tuesday that the case was one of many that piqued his legal interest.

“It’s common for lawyers to share these thoughts with one another,” Barr said Tuesday, noting that he made three phone calls to Justice Department officials about the 2017 prosecution of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on fraud and bribery charges.

“I didn’t know Menendez, no one was paying me to [discuss it] and I don’t support Menendez politically … but I believed the prosecution was based on a fallacious theory,” Barr said.

Barr testified that he penned the June memo in the same spirit that led him to call Sessions twice regarding Menendez and to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein once.

“No one asked me to write it or helped me write it,” Barr said of the Mueller memo.

Barr said his theories about the investigation were not shaped by any inside information, nor was he aware of what Mueller’s actual interpretation of obstruction-of-justice statutes were in the context of the investigation.

But the Mueller investigation was not the only point of contention Tuesday for Senate Democrats.

Noting the increasingly hostile atmosphere toward reporters in America and abroad, Senator Amy Klobuchar pushed Barr about the Trump administration’s response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Will the Department of Justice imprison reporters for doing their jobs?” the Minnesota senator asked.

Barr hesitated for a moment before answering.

“I can conceive of situations where as a last resort, and where a news organization has run through a red flag or something like that, and knows they’re putting out stuff that would hurt the country – there could be a situation where someone would be held in contempt,” Barr said.

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