WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general on Tuesday defended his decision to send an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department criticizing an aspect of the special counsel's Russia investigation, saying he was simply trying to warn senior Justice Department officials against "stretching a statute" to conclude that the president had obstructed justice.
William Barr's comments came at his Senate confirmation hearing, where he sought to provide assurance he would not undermine Robert Mueller's investigation. He said he doesn't believe Mueller, a friend of 30 years who once worked for him at the Justice Department, would be involved in a "witch hunt" — as Trump has labeled it.
And he said he believed former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was right to recuse himself from matters involving the special counsel probe — a decision Trump railed against during Sessions' time in the office.
Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee he raised his concerns about Mueller's investigation into whether the president had tried to stymie the Russia probe at a lunch last year with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and oversees his work. Rosenstein did not respond and was "sphinx-like," Barr recalled.
He said he followed up with a memo to Rosenstein in June that argued that Mueller should not be able to interview the president about his decision to fire James Comey as FBI director. He said there were other instances in which he had given advice to the Justice Department, such as cautioning against a prosecution of Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.
Barr also told senators that "it is vitally important" that Mueller be allowed to complete his investigation, and said he believes Congress and the public should learn the results. He also insisted that Trump never sought any promises, assurances or commitments before selecting him to be the country's chief law enforcement officer.
In releasing written testimony before the hearing, the Justice Department moved to pre-empt the most significant questions Barr is likely to face from Democrats on the panel — among them, whether he can oversee without bias or interference the final stages of Mueller's probe into potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, and whether he will permit the findings to be made public.
"I believe it is in the best interest of everyone — the president, Congress, and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work," Barr said.
The special counsel is required to report his findings confidentially to the Justice Department. Barr stopped short of directly pledging to release Mueller's report, but he expressed general support for disclosing the findings, whatever they may be.
"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."
The remarks are intended to reassure Democratic senators troubled by Barr's past comments on the special counsel's probe, including the unsolicited memo.
Barr also sent the memo to White House lawyers and discussed it with Trump's personal attorneys and a lawyer who represents Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, he said in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Lindsey Graham. Copies also were sent by Barr to White House lawyer Emmet Flood, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Pat Cipollone, who is now White House counsel. Barr said he discussed the contents of the memo with Trump's attorneys, Jay Sekulow and Jane and Martin Raskin.
Barr also previously said the president's firing of Comey was appropriate and the Mueller prosecution team, criticized by Trump for including prosecutors who have contributed to Democrats, should have had more "balance."
Those stances raised alarms that Barr could stifle the investigation as it reaches its final stages or make decisions that protect the president. Among the questions that he might confront if, as expected, he is confirmed would be whether to approve a subpoena for Trump if he refuses to answer additional questions, and whether to disclose to Congress whatever report or conclusions Mueller turns in.
Barr's supervisory role in the Russia probe may be especially important because 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.
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.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec has said Barr wrote the memo on his own initiative and relying only on publicly available information. She said senior ethics officials were consulted about the memo and have advised that it presents no conflict of interest to Barr's work as attorney general.
Barr said the memo was narrowly focused on a single theory of obstruction that media reports suggested Mueller might be considering. Barr said he wrote it himself "as a former attorney general who has often weighed in on legal issues of public importance."
"The memo did not address — or in any way question — the special counsel's core investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election," Barr said.