Updated 5:59 p.m. | William Barr appeared to be on a path to confirmation as the next attorney general Tuesday, after he gave senators key assurances about the special counsel probe into the 2016 elections and distanced himself from some of President Donald Trump’s comments about the investigation.
During more than seven hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr avoided the kind of missteps that might cost him votes of Republicans, who have a 53-47 advantage in the chamber. But some Democrats say he did not do enough to reassure them that he would protect Robert S. Mueller III’s probe and make the results public.
Barr, who was attorney general in the first Bush administration, answered questions about Justice Department policy on marijuana, security on the U.S.-Mexico border, social media companies and China as a rival, among other topics.
Watch: Barr and Mueller are friends? Confirmation hearing unlikely to derail attorney general confirmation
But the top subject clearly was the Mueller-led investigation into connections between Trump’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
On that, Barr didn’t shy away from contradicting Trump and even joined in a shot at the president’s style as he described turning down a chance to become his lawyer in 2017.
He told the committee that the Mueller probe is not a “witch hunt,” as Trump has repeatedly called it. Under questioning from Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Barr said he has known Mueller for years and said, “I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt.”
Barr also said he wasn’t sure of all the reasons why former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Mueller investigation but “I think he probably did the right thing.” Trump on multiple occasions criticized Sessions for that decision, which put Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of overseeing Mueller.
But Barr would not “commit” to recusing himself from the probe if Justice Department ethics officials recommended he do so. He told Hawaii Democrat Mazie K. Hirono that deciding if he would recuse himself from a case is a responsibility of the attorney general that he “would not surrender” just to win Senate approval.
When asked about comments from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, that the president should get a chance to correct the Mueller report before it goes public, Barr replied: “That will not happen.”
Delaware Democrat Chris Coons asked Barr if he would resign if the president asked him to fire Mueller without cause. Barr replied: “I would not carry out that instruction.”
And when Barr described why he wrote a 19-page memo to Rosenstein that was critical of part of the special counsel probe into the Trump campaign and Russian interference, he said Rosenstein was not a “one-pager” kind of guy, but someone willing to take a deep dive into legal issues.
Graham then cut him off with a question. “Don’t you think President Trump is a one-pager kind of guy?” Graham asked.
“I suspect he is,” Barr said.
Barr committed to giving Mueller the resources and time to complete the investigation. He said he would let Mueller finish his work and make as much of the special counsel report public as rules and regulations allow.
Barr, 68, told the committee he feels he is “in a position in life when he can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences, I can truly be independent.”
He told Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s top Democrat, that he had only one conversation with Trump, which was about the president’s private representation in June 2017.
“That’s the only time I met him before I talked to him about the job of attorney general, which obviously is not the same as representing him,” Barr said.
Barr later testified that it was a “very brief” meeting with Trump at the White House when the president was looking for lawyers to augment his defense team. Trump asked how well he knew Mueller and asked about the investigator’s integrity.
“I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such,” Barr testified. He added that Trump asked Barr if he envisioned a role as a lawyer for him.
Barr said he didn’t want to take on representation of the president because he had just taken on a time-consuming client, was looking forward to retirement and liked the freedom of not having to represent an individual. Trump took his phone number but never called Barr again.
In his opening statement, Barr stuck closely to his prepared remarks.
During the hearing, Barr told senators he would not go after marijuana companies who are following the laws of states who legalized it. But he urged Congress to pass a law about it rather than have a patchwork of state laws.
He called Russia a “potent rival” but said he was concerned the fixation on Russia might obscure the danger from the “primary rival,” China. He said he wants the Justice Department to get more involved in concerns that social media companies are stifling business competition, show bias and raise privacy concerns of Americans.
He drew a hard line on immigration enforcement, and said he agreed with Sessions’ memo curtailing the use of consent decrees to force local police departments to implement changes.
In a response to Iowa GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Barr said it was “not fair” to compare his approach to criminal justice when he was attorney general from 1991 to 1993 to today. Back then, the system had broken down, he said, laws have changed and there is more regularity in sentencing and more realization that repeat offenders need longer prison sentences.
“I think the time was right to take stock and make changes to our penal system based on current experience,” Barr said of the recent prison and sentencing overhaul signed into law late last year. “So, I have no problem with reforming the sentencing structure and I will faithfully approach that law.”
The hearing lacked the sort of public protests and outbursts that punctuated previous confirmation hearings during the Trump administration.
But Graham, in his first hearing as chairman, set a political tone early. He highlighted Republican concerns about political decisions by FBI leadership in the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath.
That included asking Barr to get to the bottom of a new report that the bureau launched a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia.
“We’re relying on you to clean this place up,” Graham said.