Trump's attorney general nominee pledges to protect Russia probe
Donald Trump's US attorney general nominee Bill Barr pledged Tuesday to protect the investigation into possible election collusion with Russia and rejected the president's characterization of the probe as a "witch hunt."
Asked in a Senate confirmation hearing whether he would obey an order from Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who leads the Russia probe, Barr replied: "Assuming there was no good cause... I would not carry out that instruction."
Barr said he was a longtime friend of Mueller and said it was "unimaginable" that the prosecutor would do anything in the investigation that would justify reeling it in or shutting it down.
He said he had no reason to rein in or defund Mueller's probe, both of which Trump has called for as part of his campaign against what he labels "rigged" and "illegal."
"I don't believe Mr Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt," Barr said.
Barr was testifying on the first of two days of hearings on his nomination by Trump to lead the Justice Department.
The 68-year-old was previously attorney general from 1991-1993 and then spent 25 years as a corporate lawyer, most of it advising telecommunications giant Verizon.
He also maintained close links to the Republican mainstream and has been a major donor to the party.
The hearing focused on whether Trump recruited Barr to replace Jeff Sessions, who was fired in November, in order to help the White House inhibit the Mueller investigation.
He was interviewed once last year as a possible personal lawyer for the president, and later submitted a brief to the Justice Department and White House arguing that Trump could not be accused of obstruction over his May 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey.
The dismissal led directly to the appointment of Mueller as an independent prosecutor leading the Russia probe, and has since figured prominently in the obstruction side of the investigation.
Barr wrote that Trump had full discretion to fire Comey for any reason, a view Democrats said showed he had already opted to side with Trump against Mueller.
"Your memo also shows a large sweeping view of presidential authority and a determined effort, I thought, to undermine Bob Mueller," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
"The attorney general must be willing to resist political pressure and be committed to protecting this investigation," she said.
Senator Patrick Leahy said the memo in fact appeared to be a "job application" to replace Sessions, who angered Trump by recusing himself from overseeing Mueller.
"That's ludicrous. If I wanted the job and was going after the job, there are many more direct ways of me bringing myself to the president's attention than writing an 18-page legal memorandum," Barr said.
FBI probe of Trump
Despite his previous criticisms of the Mueller investigation, Barr refused to agree to recuse himself from overseeing it as Sessions had.
He pledged to be as transparent as possible with Mueller's concluding report, which could come within months, but would not commit to making it public.
Some of the report will have to be confidential, he said. "My goal and intent is to get as much information out as I can."
The hearings opened just days after The New York Times reported that the FBI had opened a counter-intelligence investigation into Trump immediately following Comey's firing, amid suspicions that the president might be compromised by Russia.
Trump and Republicans say the investigation was uncalled for and showed that the FBI and the Justice Department had become deeply politicized.
"The rank and file of the FBI are great people who are disgusted with what they are learning about Lyin' James Comey and the so-called 'leaders' of the FBI," Trump tweeted Tuesday.
"Twelve have been fired or forced to leave. They got caught spying on my campaign and then called it an investigation. Bad!"
Barr said he thought the investigation was "strange" but he didn't know what was behind it.
"It's critical" to make sure FBI is not political, he said.