WASHINGTON — Vowing "I will not be bullied," President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general asserted independence from the White House on Tuesday, saying he believed that Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, that the special counsel investigation shadowing President Trump is not a witch hunt and that his predecessor was right to recuse himself from the probe.
The comments by William Barr at his Senate confirmation hearing pointedly departed from President Trump's own views and underscored Barr's efforts to reassure Democrats that he will not be a loyalist to a president who has appeared to demand it from law enforcement. He also repeatedly sought to assuage concerns that he might disturb or upend special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as it reaches its final stages.
Some Democrats are concerned about that very possibility, citing a memo Barr wrote to the Justice Department before his nomination in which he criticized Mueller's investigation for the way it was presumably looking into whether President Trump had obstructed justice.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Barr the memo showed "a determined effort, I thought, to undermine Bob Mueller." The nominee told senators he was merely trying to advised Justice Department officials against "stretching the statute" to conclude that the president had obstructed justice.
Though Barr said an attorney general should work in concert with an administration's policy goals, he broke from some Trump talking points, including the mantra that the Russia probe is a witch hunt. President Trump has equivocated on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and assailed and pushed out his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing because of his work with President Trump's campaign.
Barr stated without hesitation that it was in the public interest for Mueller to finish his investigation into whether President Trump's campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to sway the election. He said he would resist any order by President Trump to fire Mueller without cause and called it "unimaginable" that Mueller would do anything to require his termination.
"I believe the Russians interfered or attempted to interfere with the election, and I think we have to get to the bottom of it," Barr said.
He said that, at 68 and partially retired, he felt emboldened to "do the right thing and not really care about the consequences." If a president directs an attorney general to do something illegal, he said, an attorney general must resign.
"I will not be bullied into doing anything that I think is wrong by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president," Barr told the hearing.
Consumed by the partial government shutdown, President Trump remained out of sight at the White House but also kept an eye on the news coverage of the hearing and told aides he was pleased with how Barr was handling himself, two White House officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal conversations.
On other topics, Barr echoed in part the president's hardline immigration stance and said the Justice Department would not go after marijuana companies in states where the drug is legal. He also would not rule out jailing reporters for doing their jobs, saying he could envision circumstances where a journalist could be held in contempt "as a last resort."
Barr's confirmation is likely, given that Republicans control the Senate. Even some Democrats have been looking to move on from acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who declined to remove himself the Russia probe and has faced scrutiny over his private dealings.
But he nonetheless faced skeptical questions from Democrats over whether he could oversee without bias or interference the remainder of Mueller's probe.
Feinstein said the nominee's past rhetoric in support of expansive presidential powers "raises a number of serious questions about your views on executive authority and whether the president is, in fact, above the law." Under questioning, Barr voiced a more moderate view, saying a president who ordered an attorney to halt an investigation would be committing an "abuse of power" though not necessarily a crime.
Barr said under questioning from Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, that he wouldn't interfere with a Mueller request to subpoena the president for his testimony "if there was a factual basis." But he also said he saw no reason to change Justice Department legal opinions that have held that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
"I don't believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt," he said when asked by the panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Barr called Mueller a friend of 30 years and said "it is vitally important" that Mueller be allowed to complete his investigation.
The special counsel is required to report his findings confidentially to the Justice Department. Barr said he wanted to release as much as possible of Mueller's findings to Congress and the public — "That certainly is my goal and intent — though he stopped short of making a pledge. He also noted the Justice Department does not typically disclose information about people it investigates but does not prosecute.
He also disclosed having discussed Mueller with President Trump during a meeting in 2017 when Barr declined to join his legal team. President Trump wanted to know what Mueller, who worked for Barr when he led the Justice Department between 1991 and 1993, was like.
"He was interested in that, wanted to know what I thought about Mueller's integrity and so forth and so on," Barr said. "I said Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such."
He insisted that President Trump never sought any promises, assurances or commitments before selecting him for the job and said he had never asked him to fire Mueller or interfere with the investigation.
He also defended his decision to send an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department in which he criticized as "fatally misconceived" the theory of obstruction that Mueller appeared to be pursuing with regard to President Trump.
He said he raised his concerns at a lunch last year with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has overseen his work. Rosenstein didn't respond and was "sphinx-like," Barr recalled. He followed up with the memo in June.
Barr also sent the document to White House lawyers and discussed it with President Trump's personal attorneys and a lawyer representing President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, among others.
Barr said the memo was narrowly focused on a single theory of obstruction that media reports suggested Mueller might be considering.
He said he would consult with ethics officials on whether he would need to recuse because of the memo but the decision would be ultimately his.