William Barr appears for his confirmation hearing. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ

Amid concerns about the future of the Russia investigation, William Barr declined Tuesday to commit to recusing himself from overseeing the probe if confirmed as attorney general, telling senators he would consult with the Justice Department’s career ethics staff but that the decision would ultimately be his to make.

Barr, a Kirkland & Ellis counsel who previously led the Justice Department under the George H.W. Bush administration, said he would make the decision to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller III’s probe in “good faith.” His comments came in response to questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who inquired about an unsolicited June 2018 memo Barr sent to Justice Department officials, deriding a possible obstruction of justice inquiry as “fatally misconceived.”

But Barr, earlier in his testimony, sought to quell concerns that he would undermine the Russia investigation, affirming he would allow the special counsel to complete the probe into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The nominee, in a quick-fire exchange with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, spoke of his respect for a number of Justice Department officials who’ve been the frequent target of President Donald Trump’s ire and aspersions.

Barr said he didn’t believe Mueller would be involved in a “witch hunt.” He said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions “probably” did the right thing by recusing himself from the early investigation into Russian interference. And lastly, the nominee said he held a “very high opinion of (Deputy Attorney General) Rod Rosenstein,” who has overseen the probe since Sessions’ recusal.

Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, Barr said he and Mueller were “good friends” and vowed he would give the special counsel the time and funds necessary for the investigation.

Barr on Tuesday did not commit to fully disclosing a final report of Mueller’s findings to Congress or the public. He told Feinstein that, at the inquiry’s close, he plans to “make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations.”

Asked by Feinstein whether that applied to a possible report on obstruction of justice findings, Barr replied: “That’s the same answer.”

Barr also repeatedly told senators he would not terminate Mueller without good cause.

“Frankly it’s unimaginable to me that Bob would ever do anything that gave rise to good cause,” he later told Leahy. “But in theory if something happened that was good cause, for me actually it would take more than that. It’d have to be pretty grave, and public interest would essentially have to compel it, because I believe right now the overarching public interest is to allow him to finish.”

Barr’s nomination has been under intense scrutiny since Trump picked him in November to head the Justice Department following the forced resignation of Sessions. Barr would replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, whose own installation atop Justice is at the center of much litigation in federal courts.

The special counsel probe is widely believed to be winding down, which has thrust Barr’s nomination even further into the spotlight. Once Mueller completes his probe, he is required by Justice Department regulation to submit a confidential report on his findings to the attorney general. Barr then is expected to report to the heads of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, explaining why they’ve chosen to act, or not act, on parts of the special counsel’s findings.

But Democrats are concerned Barr might not commit to full disclosure of Mueller’s findings to Congress, and therefore the public.

Inside the Hearing

Tuesday’s hearing—the first half of a two-day session—comes nearly three decades after Barr testified in a confirmation hearing during his first bid to be U.S. attorney general under then-President George H.W. Bush. He served in that role from 1991 to 1993.

Familiar faces from that era dotted the crowd Tuesday: McGuireWoods partner George Terwilliger, a former acting attorney general who served as Barr’s deputy from 1991 to 1993, attended the proceeding in a show of support.

Two of the senators who questioned Barr in 1991—Leahy and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa—were still on the committee’s dais Tuesday. Former Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was also on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 and retired from Congress this January, introduced Barr on Tuesday. He praised the nominee as a “lawyer’s lawyer.”

Backers and critics of Barr’s nomination alike descended upon the hearing room in anticipation of the day’s grilling.  A few Justice Department officials attended the day’s proceeding, including Steve Engel who heads the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, Beth Williams from the Office of Legal Policy, and Jody Hunt who leads the Civil Division.

 

Also spotted in hearing room Tuesday: Vanita Gupta and Kristine Lucius of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a left-leaning civil rights group that has urged senators to question Barr on his commitment to enforcing civil rights laws.

During his opening remarks, Barr gave a shout-out to his family, including daughters Mary Daly, a lawyer working on opioid enforcement in Rosenstein’s office, and Margaret Barr, a former assistant U.S. attorney in D.C. who now works on Capitol Hill.