Barr vows to protect Mueller's Russia inquiry — as Trump denies being Russian agent

William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, promised Monday to permit special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to “complete his investigation” into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign and vowed to be as transparent as possible in releasing the findings.

Barr’s pledge, a day before he faces a Senate confirmation hearing, came as President Trump became the first U.S. president to publicly deny that he secretly worked for Moscow against American interests, pouring scorn on media reports that raised fresh questions about his unusual conduct with Russian officials.

“I never worked for Russia,” Trump told reporters indignantly outside the White House before flying to New Orleans for a speech to the American Farm Bureau. “I think it's a disgrace that you even ask that question because it's a whole big fat hoax.”

Trump has long denied any “collusion” with Russia, but recent news reports disclosed that the FBI specifically sought to determine whether he received direction from Moscow after he took office, and revealed that he had collected a translator’s notes of his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2017, leaving no official record.

The FBI’s initial counterintelligence inquiry became part of the special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign illegally assisted a Kremlin-backed operation during the 2016 presidential race that sought to undermine U.S. democracy and ultimately to help swing the election to Trump.

Mueller’s team has indicted 33 people so far, and several of Trump’s top former aides — including his former national security advisor, his former campaign chairman and his former personal lawyer — have pleaded guilty or been convicted of felony crimes, although not for conspiring with Moscow.

Democrats had signaled that they intended to grill Barr, a longtime Republican lawyer and former U.S. attorney general, about his plans to supervise Mueller if he was confirmed, and would seek a vow from Barr not to fire or undermine the special counsel.

In prepared testimony released Monday, Barr sought to deflect those concerns. He called it “vitally important” that Mueller complete his investigation and said his goal would be to release Mueller’s findings to Congress and the public to dispel questions about any improper coordination with Russia.

“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 country needs a credible resolution of these issues.”

If confirmed, Barr said, “I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation. I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work.”

Barr said he had the “utmost respect” for Mueller, noting they have been friends for 30 years and that they worked together when Barr headed the Justice Department from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.

Barr also said his goal would be to “provide as much transparency” as possible after Mueller completed his report. Trump’s aides have suggested they may try to classify the report, or try to rewrite it, before any release to Congress and the public.

“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 decision,” Barr added.

Under Justice Department guidelines, the attorney general must report to Congress when the special counsel investigation is completed. Part of the report would include any instances in which the attorney general disagreed with a course of action being sought by Mueller.

Barr pledged to give “priority to protecting the integrity of elections” by ensuring “the full might of our resources are brought to bear against foreign powers who unlawfully interfere” in the electoral process.

He also sought to explain a 20-page memo he wrote to Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein last year in which he argued the special counsel’s investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017 was “fatally misconceived.”

Democrats have pointed to the memo as evidence that Barr may not be able to approach the investigation with an open mind.

“My memo was narrow in scope,” Barr said, and focused on “a specific obstruction-of-justice theory under a single statute that I thought, based on media reports, the special counsel might be considering.”

He noted the memo did not address other theories and did not assert that the president could never obstruct justice.

Barr, 68, said he did not pursue the nomination as attorney general and was “reluctant to be considered” because he was partially retired and nearing the end of his long legal career.

He said he agreed to be nominated because “I believe strongly in public service, revere the law, and I love the Department of Justice.”

It will be his fourth Senate confirmation hearing and he is expected to pass muster — although the Judiciary Committee and the Senate have changed dramatically since Barr last appeared.

He won unanimous support from the committee, then controlled by Democrats, in 1991 as Bush’s nominee for attorney general, and then won approval by a voice vote on the floor, signifying overwhelming support. He is likely to win some Democratic votes this time, but partisan rancor is far more pronounced.

The committee chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), is an ardent Trump ally who was credited with — or blamed for — rescuing the embattled confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in the committee’s last high-profile hearing. At least two Democrats on the panel, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, are expected to run for president in 2020.

Barr has a robust view of presidential power and is well respected in Republican circles for his conservative legal views. Career officials in the Justice Department expressed relief at his nomination — he was viewed as a steady and reliable hand to take over as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

If confirmed, Barr would replace Matthew Whitaker, who has served as acting attorney general since Trump forced Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to resign a day after the Nov. 6 midterm election. Although Sessions carried out Trump’s policies at the Justice Department, the president repeatedly attacked him for recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

Whitaker, who was Sessions’ chief of staff, quickly ran into political trouble for having a thin prosecutorial resume and for making comments critical of Mueller before he joined the Trump administration in October 2017.

Whitaker refused to recuse himself from the special counsel investigation despite the recommendation of a career Justice Department ethics lawyer.

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