William Barr, attorney general nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)  

Barr Reveals He Discussed Mueller Probe With Pence

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr says he’s had “general” conversations with Vice President Mike Pence about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing Russia investigation.

Barr disclosed those talks Monday in written answers to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he and Pence have been acquaintances since the spring of 2017 and that Mueller’s investigation has been a topic of their “occasional conversations.”

Barr Reveals He Discussed Mueller Probe With Pence

“Our conversations have included, at times, general discussion of the special counsel’s investigation in which I gave my views on such matters as Bob Mueller’s high integrity and various media reports," Barr wrote.

As attorney general, Barr would oversee Mueller’s inquiry into Russia meddling in the 2016 campaign, including whether anyone close to Trump conspired in the interference and whether the president sought to obstruct justice.

Democrats have faulted Barr for a memo he sent to the Justice Department last year criticizing Mueller for looking into Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey as possible obstruction. At Barr’s confirmation hearing this month, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the memo read like a job application, a description Barr called “ludicrous.”

In Barr’s written answers on Monday, he said that in his conversations with Pence “I did not provide legal advice, nor, to the best of my recollection, did he provide confidential information." But the revelation that the two have talked about Mueller is likely to generate additional scrutiny from lawmakers.

Final Report

Barr also stood by his position that Justice Department standards may prevent him from releasing Mueller’s final report or allowing the president to be charged with a crime while in office. That is likely to result in more criticism from lawmakers who are seeking ironclad assurances that the public will get to read Mueller’s report.

At the same time, two Judiciary panel members -- Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Richard Blumenthal -- said Monday that they’re proposing legislation that would require Mueller’s report to be made available to the public and Congress when the investigation is complete. If the special counsel were fired or resigned, a public report would have to be released in two weeks.

Barr told senators he would resign if the president ordered him to fire Mueller without good cause or claimed executive privilege to cover up a crime. But he wouldn’t promise to comply with a potential House Judiciary Committee subpoena for the Mueller report.

Barr also laid out a path to withhold damaging information about the president or others if it didn’t warrant criminal prosecution. Barr also wouldn’t say that the president can’t pardon himself or others involved in the probe.

“As I testified, I believe that Robert Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation. Any review of the existing regulations should occur following the conclusion of the special counsel’s work,” Barr said in a written response to Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“I would resign rather than follow an order to terminate the special counsel without good cause,” Barr wrote.

Follow-Up Questions

The nominee was responding to follow-up questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members after his Jan. 15 hearing before the panel.

Barr, 68, was attorney general for President George H.W. Bush during the early 1990s. His nomination is likely to be voted out of the Judiciary Committee next week, setting up a confirmation vote on the Senate floor before Presidents’ Day on Feb. 18. He doesn’t need Democratic votes to win Senate confirmation, although he may get some, and there’s no sign that any Republicans are wavering on backing him.

In answers to Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and others, Barr declined to commit to how he would respond to possible subpoenas from congressional committees for the full Mueller report or for testimony by Mueller. He said he would be as transparent as possible under existing law and policy and “will let no personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decision.”

“Congress can and does conduct its own investigations” even if the Justice Department decides “not to provide certain information about an uncharged individual gathered during the course of a criminal investigation,’ Barr wrote.

Barr responded to Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware and others that Justice Department regulations and directives caution prosecutors “to be sensitive to the privacy and reputational interests of uncharged third parties.”

He noted that it’s department policy “not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution.”

But Barr insisted he wouldn’t be part of a cover-up of crimes.

“I would resign," he wrote, if he concluded the president was claiming executive privilege to cover up evidence of a crime.

As for potentially indicting the president, Barr pointed to an existing Justice Department legal opinion that prosecuting a sitting president “would unconstitutionally undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.”

Iran-Contra Pardons

Barr was also pressed for answers by top panel Democrat Dianne Feinstein about his view of pardons in view of his actions in 1992 when he was Bush’s attorney general. Barr advised Bush to issue the “broadest” pardons for Caspar Weinberger and others prosecuted by the Iran-Contra independent counsel. Bush’s pardons, issued as he was leaving office, all but ended the investigation.

Barr wrote in the answers released Monday that the president’s pardon power is “broad” but can be abused.

“A president who abuses his or her pardon power can be held accountable in a number of different ways by Congress and the electorate,” he wrote. A president “may be subject to prosecution after leaving office” if he commits a crime, he added.

But Barr didn’t answer Feinstein’s specific questions on whether a president could pardon criminal co-conspirators, offer a pardon in exchange for a witness’s agreement not to cooperate with investigators or grant pardons in exchange for bribes.

Barr also:

  • Declined to weigh in on questions from Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal over whether the president has the power to build a border wall by declaring an emergency, saying he hasn’t examined the issue.
  • Indicated he would discuss antitrust concerns with Amazon, Google and Facebook as well as non-compete clauses with the Antitrust Division.
  • Said a president may breach his “obligation to faithfully execute the laws” if he halted a lawful investigation for an improper purpose.
  • Said he would oppose pursuing gun-control measures that might further burden the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens “without having any meaningful impact on crime or public safety.”

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