Nominee defends Robert Mueller investigation | News Coverage from USA

Nominee defends Robert Mueller investigation

WASHINGTON – William Barr, nominated to succeed ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, strongly proclaimed his independence from political influence Tuesday, asserting that President Donald Trump exacted no promises of favoritism and that he would not direct the Justice Department as an extension of the White House.

In a confirmation hearing remarkable for its congeniality, the 68-year-old nominee and former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, provided unflinching assurances that he would allow Russia special counsel Robert Mueller to complete the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

“I’m in a position in life to provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence of this department,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing. “I won’t do anything that I think is wrong; I won’t be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.”

Acknowledging a long professional association and personal friendship with Mueller, Barr said: “I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch-hunt.” He also believed that it would be “unimaginable” that the special counsel would engage in conduct that would warrant his removal.

Trump has repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a “witch-hunt,” and has attacked Mueller directly as waging a politically-charged campaign against him.

 At the same time, however, Barr said that while he would seek the advice of Justice ethics officials on whether he should recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, he would not commit to following their recommendation.

“I make the decision,” Barr said, adding that he would take action “in good faith, based on the law and the facts.”

Questions about Barr’s possible recusal have been raised since last month with the disclosure of a 19-page memorandum that he authored concluding that Mueller’s inquiry into possible obstruction by the president was “fatally misconceived.”  

Democrats and some Republican members immediately seized on the memo, as a gauge of Trump’s possible influence over the nominee.

“If confirmed, the president is going to expect you to do his bidding; I can almost guarantee you he’ll cross the line at some point,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Barr. “So, will you commit, if confirmed, both to seeking and following the advice of the department’s career ethics officials on whether you must recuse from the special counsel’s investigation?”

“I will seek the advice of career ethics personnel,” Barr replied. “But…I make the decision as to my own recusal.”

Barr’s response comes after acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker late last year refused to follow the recommendation of ethics officials that he recuse himself from involvement in Mueller’s inquiry because of past public statements assailing the special counsel’s probe.

Whitaker, before joining the department as Sessions’ chief of staff, said that the special counsel’s investigation could be halted if the department simply declined to fund it.

Barr committed to providing the necessary resources to the special counsel investigation, and when asked for a pledge to keep Mueller on the job, Barr told California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s ranking Democrat: “Absolutely.”

Although the hearing was dominated by exchanges involving the Russia inquiry, Barr also weighed in on abortion, gun rights, marijuana legalization, election protection, recent criminal justice reform legislation, violent crime enforcement and the incendiary debate over immigration and border security that is at the heart of the government shutdown.

Acknowledging that he was testifying as government employees, including his own children were going without pay, Barr urged government leaders to broker “a deal” that would involve border security funding.

That funding, Barr said, should provide support for “barriers, walls, slats…anything that makes sense.”

Democrats have refused to fund a physical barrier, and Trump has not budged from a demand for $5.7 billion to pay for walls and other barriers.

“They call it the Trump shutdown but it takes two to tango,” Barr said, adding that “not having a wall also has an effect on law enforcement” in addition to not paying federal law enforcement officers during the government closure.

“As we open our front door, and try to admit people in an orderly way, we cannot allow others to flout our legal system by crashing in through the back door,” Barr said in his opening statement. “Countenancing this lawlessness would be grossly unfair to those abiding by the rules. It would create unsafe conditions on our borders for all involved. It would permit an avenue for criminals and terrorists to gain access to our country.”

Barr said the current process for asylum was being abused and in need of reform, though he acknowledged that he had not visited the border since he last served as attorney general about 30 years ago.

“We need to change the laws,” Barr said. “We need to run a lawful immigration system.”

In an exchange with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, Barr also raised concern about policies adopted by so-called sanctuary cities, which limit the sharing of local prisoners’ immigration status with federal immigration authorities.

Under Sessions, the Justice Department had aggressively sought to limit federal grant funding to sanctuary jurisdictions.

Yet in a dramatic split with Sessions, Barr said he would not use federal law enforcement resources to pursue marijuana businesses in the 10 states and District of Columbia that operate within state law, despite federal prohibitions against pot.

“We’re not going to go after that,” Barr said of legal marijuana businesses.

On gun rights, Barr expressed strong support for the Second Amendment, though he called for efforts to increasingly restrict access to the mentally ill who have been linked to a string of recent mass shootings.

Such restrictions, Barr said, could “stop these massacres.”

In a noticeable departure from recent high-profile congressional hearings, there were no audible outbursts of protest from the hearing room gallery during the morning and early afternoon sessions. Though, some spectators snapped to attention during the afternoon when Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, questioned Barr on whether he had ever been accused of sexual assault or had been a party to a sexual harassment claim—allegations that have claimed the careers of Hollywood moguls and corporate executives.

“No,” Barr said.

Yet no other matter loomed as large Tuesday as the Russia investigation, Barr’s assessment of it, as well as the man leading it – Robert Mueller.

Before he was contacted as a possible nominee, Barr said he was recruited as a possible member of Trump’s legal team representing the president in the Mueller inquiry.

As Trump was seeking additional legal counsel, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and a close associated of the president, called Barr in June 2017.

The nominee said that he told Friedman that he would not be interested in taking on the work, but he agreed to meet with Trump at the White House the day after speaking with Friedman.

During the brief meeting, Barr said Trump’s questions centered on Mueller after learning that Barr and Mueller were personal friends in addition to former colleagues. Barr said he described the special counsel as “a man of integrity and a straight shooter.”

The meeting ended, the nominee said, with Barr providing Trump his phone number.

“I never heard from him again,” Barr said—until he was contacted as a possible nominee for the job he now seeks.

“He (Trump) didn’t ask me about the (Mueller) investigation,” Barr said, referring to their discussion about the attorney general job. “He didn’t ask me what I would do.”


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