President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general has asserted independence from the White House.
William Barr said 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 Mr Barr at his Senate confirmation hearing departed from President Trump’s own views and underscored Mr 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.
Some Democrats are concerned about that possibility, citing a memo Mr Barr wrote to the Justice Department before his nomination in which he criticised special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation for the way it was looking into whether President Trump had obstructed justice.
Sen Dianne Feinstein of California, top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Mr Barr the memo showed “a determined effort, I thought, to undermine Bob Mueller”.
The nominee told senators he was merely trying to warn Justice Department officials against “stretching a statute” to conclude that the president had obstructed justice.
President Trump has repeatedly slammed Mr Mueller’s investigation, calling it a “witch hunt”, and lambasted and ultimately pushed out his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for removing himself from the matter because of his work with the 2016 Trump campaign.
“I will not be bullied into doing anything that I think is wrong, whether it be by editorial boards, Congress or the president,” Mr Barr told senators on the Judiciary Committee.
He said that, at 68 years old and partially retired, “I feel that I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences”.
Mr Barr repeatedly praised Mr Mueller, who has been investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to sway the election, and said he would not undermine his work.
He called him a friend of 30 years and said he could not imagine that Mr Mueller would do anything that would justify his firing.
“I don’t believe Mr Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” he said when asked by the Republican chairman of the committee, Sen Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
At issue for Democratic senators is whether Mr Barr can oversee without bias or interference the final stages of Mr Mueller’s probe into potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
Ms 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”.
Mr Barr would oversee the final stages of the investigation. He said he would consult with ethics officials on whether he would need to recuse because of a critical unsolicited memo to the Justice Department last year, but the decision would be ultimately his.