Attorney General nominee William Barr has praised the integrity of special counsel Robert Mueller, while at the same time committing to find out whether the FBI’s Russia investigation, which Mueller eventually took over, was conducted appropriately.
Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, was repeatedly questioned about his position regarding the Mueller probe during his first confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 15, about a month after President Donald Trump announced Barr’s nomination.
‘Do the Right Thing’
Barr said he reluctantly accepted the nomination.
“I did not pursue this position,” he said, and later added he had been preparing for retirement from his current job at Kirkland and Ellis, a high-profile Washington law firm.
He eventually accepted, saying he believes he’s capable of defending political independence of the department.
“I’m in a position to be independent,” Barr said, noting that, at the age of 68, he is ready to “do the right thing and not really care” what it may cost him in a political sense. “I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.”
Barr addressed how some of his positions were portrayed in the media, particularly regarding the Mueller probe.
He said he took issue with the probe on only two points: Mueller should have had a greater balance of political leanings on his team (most of the team donated to Democrats), and the Mueller team was incorrect in considering a potential obstruction of justice case against Trump.
Mueller was appointed in 2017 by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take over an FBI probe of Russian interference into the 2016 elections, as well as allegations that Trump’s presidential election campaign had colluded with the interference. Mueller indicted more than two dozen Russians allegedly involved in the meddling but none of the indictments substantiated the collusion allegations.
Barr said based on public information, he was under the impression that Mueller was planning to raise the claim that Trump obstructed justice by firing then-FBI Director James Comey in 2017 and by telling Comey he “hoped” Comey could “let … go” of further inquiries into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Trump denied making such a comment.
Barr argued the obstruction statute did not pertain to Trump’s actions and warned about “serious adverse consequences” of “stretching the statue beyond what was intended.”
Aside from that Barr said it is “vital” Mueller is free to finish his work.
“I think we have to get to the bottom of it,” he said, referring to the Russian meddling.
He said he has known Mueller for 30 years and trusts him to conduct the investigation properly and fairly to the president.
Barr committed to releasing as much of the expected Mueller report as laws and regulations allow and promised Trump will not rewrite the report.
FBI Spying on Trump Associates
On request from Justice Committee Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Barr said he will examine some FBI actions starting in 2016, when the bureau obtained a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump Campaign Associate Carter Page. In the warrant the FBI used the Steele Dossier, a collection of unsubstantiated claims about Trump-Russia ties compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele who was commissioned by the Democratic Party and presidential campaign of former State Secretary Hillary Clinton.
Through using the dossier in the warrant, FBI officials vouched for the reliability of the source, Graham said. However, evidence has since emerged officials were aware the dossier is unverified and its source politically biased.
Barr said he was shocked to see text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two former FBI officials who had led the Russia probe team. In some of the texts, the two expressed strong animus against Trump. Both are no longer with the bureau.
“Do you promise me as attorney general, if you get this job, to look in to see what happened in 2016?” Graham asked.
“Yes Mr. Chairman,” Barr replied.
Barr’s Past Explained
Late President George H. W. Bush first recruited Barr to join the Justice Department in 1989. He served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993, where he “provided legal reasoning used by the administration to justify the invasion of Panama and the arrest of Manuel Antonio Noriega,” The Washington Post reported in 1991. “He also wrote an opinion [piece] that states the administration has the power to arrest terrorists overseas, even in violation of international law.”
Before this he served as deputy attorney general in the Justice Department, and the CIA while attending law school. Towards the end of his time at the agency, he “occasionally helped write [a] testimony for the [CIA] director,” who, at the time, was Bush, the paper said.
Since leaving the Bush administration, Barr returned to private practice.
Since 2009 Barr sat on the board at Dominion Energy, a $52 billion power and energy company headquartered in Richmond, Va., and on the board at Time Warner between 2009 and 2018.
Since 2017, he has also been on the External Advisory Board to the CIA director. Since 2018 he has been on Trump’s Intelligence Advisory Board (pdf).