WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general asserted independence from the White House on Tuesday, saying he believed that Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, that the special counsel investigation shadowing Trump is not a witch hunt and that his predecessor was right to recuse himself from the probe.
Those comments by William Barr at his Senate confirmation hearing pointedly departed from Trump's own views and underscored Barr's efforts to reassure Democrats that he will not be a loyalist to a president who has appeared to demand it from law enforcement.
Barr also touched on social issues, expressing his support for the president’s prioritization of border security and saying “we need to have barriers on the border,” while also saying his “approach would be not to upset settled expectations” regarding legalized marijuana.
Asked if waterboarding was torture, Barr said he “would have to look at the legal definition” and noted that “right now, it’s prohibited.”
Democrats focused in on the Russia probe in many of their questions to Barr, citing a memo he wrote to the Justice Department before his nomination in which he criticized an aspect of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Barr, however, told senators he was merely trying to warn Justice Department officials against “stretching a statute” to conclude that the president had obstructed justice.
“On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work,” Barr promised.
Barr stopped short, however, of directly pledging to release Mueller’s report, instead expressing general support for disclosing the findings.
“For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” Barr said. “I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decisions.”
Trump has repeatedly castigated Mueller’s investigation, calling it a “witch hunt,” and lambasted and ultimately pushed out his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for removing himself from the matter because of his work with the 2016 Trump campaign.
Barr pushed back against that notion.
He repeatedly praised Mueller, who has been investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to sway the election, and said he would not undermine his work. He called him a friend of 30 years and said he couldn’t imagine that Mueller would do anything that would justify his firing.
“I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” he said when asked by the Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Later, though, he implied that Trump was not necessarily unreasonable to use the phrase.
“It’s understandable that if someone felt they were falsely accused they would view an investigation as something like a witch hunt, where someone like you or me who doesn’t know the facts, you know, might not use that term,” he said.
Barr used the morning session to stress his independence. He said that, at 68 years old and partially retired, “I feel that I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences.”
Barr would oversee the final stages of the investigation. He said he would consult with ethics officials on whether he would need to recuse because of a critical unsolicited memo to the Justice Department last year, but the decision would be ultimately his.
He also disclosed having discussed Mueller with Trump during a meeting in 2017 when Barr declined to join his legal team. Trump wanted to know what Mueller, who worked for Barr when he led the Justice Department between 1991 and 1993, was like.
"He was interested in that, wanted to know what I thought about Mueller's integrity and so forth and so on," Barr told senators. "I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such."
He defended his decision to send an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department criticizing Mueller’s investigation into whether the president had sought to obstruct justice.
Barr’s June memo to top Justice Department officials criticized as “fatally misconceived” the theory of obstruction that Mueller appeared to be pursuing. He said presidents cannot be criminally investigated for actions they are permitted to take under the Constitution, such as firing officials who work for them, just because of a subjective determination that they may have had a corrupt state of mind.
Democratic senators have questioned whether Barr can oversee without bias or interference the final stages of Mueller’s probe.
Barr’s supervisory role in the Russia probe may be especially important because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has overseen his day-to-day work, expects to leave the Justice Department soon after Barr is confirmed.
It is not clear how much of the investigation will be left by then.
Barr would replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who declined to recuse himself from the investigation.
Read Barr’s prepared testimony: http://apne.ws/x87UoUn