Attorney general nominee William P. Barr doubled down on his refusal to give senators a guarantee to publicly release special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report when it is completed, in written answers he delivered to the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of a planned panel vote on his confirmation.
Barr stressed that his “goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law” in several of the answers he provided to panel senators, who challenged him to offer better assurances that he would release the report than he did during a confirmation hearing earlier this month. Democrats on the panel also failed to secure a firmer promise from Barr to alert them if Justice Department ethics officials advise him to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, reserving the final decision for himself.
“Where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and Department policy and will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decision,” Barr wrote in response to a question from top committee Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) about how he would approach Mueller’s probe.
But some senators are less ready to defer to Barr’s judgment than he would like, particularly when it comes to Mueller’s investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
On Monday, Sens. Richard J. Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill to guarantee that every special-counsel report would be released directly to Congress and the public, effectively taking out the attorney general as middleman.
“A report would be required whenever a Special Counsel finishes the investigation, is fired, or resigns, assuring that the results cannot be sealed or selectively censored,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “The public has a right and need to know the facts of such betrayals of public trust.”
The bill also requires a special counsel’s office to report on its findings to Congress within two weeks of any special counsel being terminated or resigning. Senators also have sought to prevent Mueller’s potential firing with legislation giving special counsels the right to have termination decisions reviewed in federal court, but it stalled last year due to Republican resistance.
Barr testified, and reiterated in his written answers, that he “would not countenance changing the existing regulations for the purpose of removing Special Counsel Mueller without good cause.” If confirmed as attorney general, Barr, not President Trump, would make any final decisions about Mueller’s tenure.
But Democrats are still concerned that Barr might try to limit the scope of Mueller’s probe. Many have pointed to a June memo that Barr submitted to various Justice Department officials, arguing that Mueller appeared to be inappropriately stretching the definition of obstruction of justice under existing statutes to make a case for it in the Trump-Russia investigation. Barr has defended his right to voice that opinion as a private citizen and has argued that it was commonplace for him to offer his opinions on various legal matters.
In his written testimony, however, Barr told senators that “apart from the memorandum that I drafted in June 2018, I do not recall any other instance in which I conveyed my thoughts to the Department of Justice in my capacity as a former Attorney General in a legal memorandum.” (Barr served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration.)
Barr nonetheless promised in a written answer to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) that any decisions regarding Mueller’s probe would be made “free of bias.”
But he appeared to express some sympathy toward Trump’s position, telling Durbin that “it is understandable that someone who felt like he or she was being falsely accused would describe an investigation into him or her as a ‘witch hunt,’ ” as Trump has frequently referred to Mueller’s probe. He also told Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) that “it is Department policy and practice not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution.”
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Barr’s nomination Tuesday, but Democrats are expected to request that vote be delayed for a week to better scrutinize Barr’s nearly 250 pages of written answers and give him more time to meet with senators, particularly Democrats, who have questions about his nomination. On Monday, Barr’s preliminary schedule showed several meetings with senators, all of them Republicans.