clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

6 key takeaways from Bill Barr’s testimony about the Mueller probe so far

Trump’s AG nominee offered some reassurances — but dodged on other questions.

Attorney General nominee William Barr.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The big question heading into attorney general nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing was whether he’d act as an independent head of the Justice Department under a president who has gone to extreme lengths to try to impede special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — despite elements of his record that have raised some concerns.

So as the hearing began Tuesday, Barr tried to offer some assurances and commitments — saying he almost surely wouldn’t fire Mueller, and making clear he believed self-interested presidential interference with an investigation could raise constitutional concerns.

Yet some of Barr’s answers were less committal — most notably on whether he’d follow ethics advice about recusal, and about how much of Mueller’s findings he’d make public.

Barr also explained that he had met with President Trump in mid-2017 about potentially joining Trump’s legal defense team — and that Trump had pressed him for his opinion on Mueller.

The nominee said he called Mueller a straight shooter and recommended dealing with him as such. But by mid-2018, Barr had apparently become concerned by Mueller’s activities, and submitted a lengthy memo criticizing what he believed was Mueller’s legal theory on obstruction of justice.

So altogether, the opening of Barr’s testimony was a mixed bag — containing some encouraging signs but still making it difficult to dismiss concerns about how he’d handle the special counsel probe going forward.

What Barr said

Here are the key pieces of testimony Barr gave that raised concerns about how he’ll handle the investigation:

  • Recusal: Barr would not commit to following the advice of the Justice Department’s ethics office on whether to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller, saying instead that the decision would be his own.
  • Public disclosure: Barr hedged on what he intended to disclose of Mueller’s findings — he said he wanted the public to be informed but would only commit to acting “consistent with regulations and the law.” He also left the door open to Trump using executive privilege to block the release of some material.
  • Talked with Trump: Barr described how in summer 2017, he had conversations about potentially joining Trump’s defense team, including one with the president. Barr claimed this was a “brief meeting” in which Trump kept pushing him for his views on Mueller, and Barr responded that Mueller was a “straight shooter.”

However, the nominee also made some more reassuring commitments to those concerned he’s being installed to help Trump block the Russia probe:

  • He likely won’t fire Mueller: Barr committed in pretty strong terms that he would not fire Mueller unless some “grave” action justified it, and he found that “unimaginable.”
  • Pardons can be criminal: Barr said that if a president pardoned someone in exchange for a promise not to incriminate him, that would be a crime.
  • Trump can’t intervene to protect himself or family: Finally, Barr also said that if a president were to intervene with a Justice Department investigation to protect himself, a family member, or a business associate, that “would be a breach of his obligation under the Constitution to faithfully execute the laws.”

Barr wouldn’t commit to following DOJ’s ethics advice on recusal

First off, Barr said that though he’d “seek the advice of the career ethics personnel” about recusal, he wouldn’t necessarily follow their advice.

“Under the regulations, I make the decision as the head of the agency as to my own recusal,” he said.

Barr’s position on this is highly relevant — he saw how then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from the Russia probe infuriated President Trump, spurring constant complaints that Sessions had failed to protect him. His relationship with the president never recovered.

Finally, Trump fired Sessions in November and installed Matthew Whitaker, who had earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of the Russia investigation, as an acting replacement. Whitaker then rejected an ethics official’s informal advice that he should recuse himself from overseeing Mueller.

Now Barr faces questions about his impartiality, for a few reasons. First, he had discussed joining Trump’s defense team in 2017. Then, in June 2018, he wrote a lengthy memo criticizing what he thought was Mueller’s theory behind the obstruction of justice investigation — and said Mueller shouldn’t be permitted to subpoena President Trump. He distributed that memo not only to the Justice Department but also to lawyers close to the president.

Matthew Miller, who served in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, argued that Barr’s position fell short of what previous attorneys general had agreed to do:

Barr didn’t quite commit to making a “Mueller report” public

Trump’s attorney general pick also hedged somewhat on whether he’d make Mueller’s findings public. Barr said he believes it’s very important “that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work.”

But when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked whether he’d disclose “as much as possible” of a final report from Mueller, Barr would only commit to acting “consistent with regulations and the law.”

There’s a lot of wiggle room here. He wants to inform the public and Congress of the “results” — but he doesn’t say how much detail he would like to provide, or in what format. His phrase about being consistent with the law might also suggest he could conclude he’s legally constrained from making some of this information public.

Barr also left open the possibility that Trump could block the release of some material through executive privilege. “I don’t have a clue as to what would be in the report,” Barr said. “In theory, if there was executive privilege material that to which an executive privilege claim could be made, it might — someone might raise a claim of executive privilege.”

Barr described his conversations about joining Trump’s defense team

Finally, Barr also disclosed his discussions a year and a half ago about possibly joining Trump’s legal defense team.

He said that in June 2017, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, reached out to him to discuss whether he’d be a good fit for the defense team. “He asked me a number of questions like, ‘What have you said about the president publicly? Do you have conflicts?’” Barr said.

After that, Barr agreed to meet with President Trump. He says this was a “very brief meeting” and that Trump was mainly interested in the question, “How well do you know Bob Mueller,” and in what he thought of Mueller’s integrity.

Barr said he responded that “Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.” He also said that he said he wasn’t interested in joining the legal team then, and that after that, he didn’t hear from the president again until the attorney general post opened up.

But Barr also offered some reassurances to those concerned that Trump might shut down Mueller’s probe

Barr also made some commitments, and gave some assurances, regarding the integrity of the Mueller probe and what Trump might do to interfere with it.

For one, he committed rather strongly to not firing Mueller. He said it was “unimaginable” to him that Mueller would do anything that would justify his firing, and he would only take that action if Mueller did something “pretty grave.” He also said he’d make sure Mueller had the funds and time necessary to finish his work.

Then, asked whether the president “could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him,” Barr responded, “No, that would be a crime.” (Many have speculated that Trump might pardon his former campaign chair Paul Manafort, who was convicted of financial crimes last year.)

Barr also made an interesting claim that a president interfering in an investigation in which he has an interest could be a constitutional violation. He said:

The other category of cases, and let’s pick an easy, bad example, would be, if a member of the president’s family, or a business associate, or something, was under investigation, and he tries to intervene. He’s the chief law enforcement officer and you could say “he has the power,” but it would be a breach of his obligation under the Constitution to faithfully execute the laws. So in my opinion, if a president attempts to intervene in a matter he has a stake in to protect himself, that should first be looked at as a breach of his constitutional duties.

Those examples are certainly interesting, considering members of Trump’s family (like his son Donald Trump Jr.) may potentially be implicated in Mueller’s investigation. Trump’s business has come under scrutiny as well.

Finally, Barr was asked about Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s claims that he wanted to “correct” any Mueller report before its release. “That will not happen,” Barr said.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.