U.S. senators grill Trump's attorney general nominee

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, said Tuesday that the idea that a memo he wrote last year criticizing the Mueller investigation was a veiled job application is "ludicrous."

Shortly after Barr's confirmation hearings got underway Tuesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. told Barr that some have said that the memo was intended to draw the president's attention to his potential as a possible attorney general.

"That's ludicrous," Barr responded. "If I wanted the job and was going after the job, there are many more direct ways of me bringing myself to the president’s attention than writing an 18-page legal memorandum."

Barr faced a barrage of related queries about — and criticism of — his views on Mueller’s Russia probe from the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday as proceedings began, including a memo he sent to the Justice Department last year in which he criticized Mueller’s investigation.

RELATED: William Barr through the years

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William Barr through the years
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William Barr through the years
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 1991 file photo, then Attorney General nominee William Barr is shown on Capitol Hill in Washington. Barr once advised the U.S. government that it could attack Iraq without Congressional approval, arrest a deposed foreign dictator and capture suspects abroad without that country’s permission. Those decisions reflect a broad view of presidential power that Barr, President Donald Trump's pick to reclaim his old attorney general job, demonstrated at the Justice Department and in the years since. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
U.S. President George H. Bush signs into law new civil rights guarantees for women and minorities at a Rose Garden ceremony, Thursday, Nov. 21, 1991 in Washington, as Vice President Dan Quayle, left, and Acting Attorney General William Barr look on. The bill signing capped a two-year struggle with congress over whether the legislation encouraged job quotas. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
U.S. President George H. Bush, right, and William Barr wave after Barr was sworn in as the new Attorney General of the United States, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1991 at a Justice Department ceremony in Washington. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)
U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while talking to Attorney General William Barr in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 4, 1992 in Washington. The President met with top domestic Cabinet officers to tackle long-range problems pushed to the forefront by last week's deadly riots in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
Board member of MCI Telecommunications, Nicholas Katzenbach, second left, speaks at hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on "The WorldCom Case: Looking at Bankruptcy and Competition Issues" on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, July 22, 2003. Witnesses are, from left, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Verizon Communications William Barr, Katzenbach, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP's Marcia Goldstein, Communications Workers of America President Morton Bahr, National Bankruptcy Conference Vice-Chair Douglas Baird, Cerberus Capital Management Chief Operation Officer Mark Neporent. (AP Photo/Akira Ono)
Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, left, listens as William Redpath, Libertarian Party national chairman, answers a question at a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. (AP Photo)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, left, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee member and Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, arrives to meet with Senate Judiciary Committee member and Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, right, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Attorney General nominee William Barr , left, turns to answer a reporter's question as he arrives to meet with Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Democrats on the Judiciary Committee — including at least three potential 2020 presidential contenders — had been expected to zero in on that memo.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on committee, told Barr that anyone filling that position must be capable of telling the president "no."

"He must have the integrity, the strength and the fortitude to tell the president 'no,' regardless of the consequences," Feinstein said in her opening remarks at the Senate confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee William Barr, which began Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill. "In short, he must be willing to defend the independence of the Justice Department."

Feinstein also said that the memo Barr wrote about the Mueller investigation raises "serious questions" about his views on executive authority and whether he thinks the president is above the law.

"In the memo, you conclude that special counsel Mueller is 'grossly irresponsible' for pursuing an obstruction case against the president," she said. "I hope we can straighten that out in this hearing."

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, began the opening round of questions with queries about Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, FISA applications, Bruce Ohr and the Steele dossier — all topics of tweets by President Trump — as well a recent report that the FBI had opened up a counterintelligence investigation of the president.

"Are you familiar with the January 11 New York Times article about an FBI open inquiry into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russians?" Graham asked. "Can you promise me and this committee to look into this and tell us whether or not — in the appropriate way — a counterintelligence investigation was opened up by someone at the FBI/Department of Justice against President Trump?"

Barr said that he believed "there are a number of investigations" of the matter.

He also defended his Mueller memo, saying it was "entirely proper" and that it was very common for former senior officials to weigh in on certain matters. He pointed to a few months earlier, when he said he weighed in repeatedly to complain about the idea of prosecution of Sen. [Robert] Menendez, D-N.J., despite the fact that he doesn't support him politically.

Barr assured several Democrats he “absolutely” would ensure that Mueller is not terminated without good cause and that it’s “unimaginable” to think the special counsel would do anything that would cause that to happen.

In an exchange with Feinstein, Barr was asked if he would commit to making the Mueller report publicly available.

“I am going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations,” Barr said.

Asked if the president can order the attorney general to halt a criminal investigation for personal reasons, Barr said, “I think it would be a breach of the president’s duties. It would be an abuse of power.”

Barr said that he discussed the Mueller probe with Trump “but not in any particular substance” and volunteered to detail his conversations, with Feinstein saying she would follow up later. Barr added that in June 2017, he was approached by David Friedman, who now serves as ambassador to Israel, about the possibility of personal representation to “augment” Trump’s defense team, but he decided not to pursue the option.

In a letter to Graham Monday night ahead of the hearing, Barr reiterated that he believed Mueller should be able to finish his investigation — and that he believes a president can be guilty of obstructing justice.

“If a President, acting with the requisite intent, engages in the kind of evidence impairment the statute prohibits – regardless whether it involves the exercise of his or her constitutional powers or not – then a President commits obstruction of justice under the statute. It is as simple as that,” Barr wrote.

“I believe the country needs a credible and thorough investigation into Russia’s efforts to meddle in our democratic process, including the extent of any collusion by Americans, and thus feel strongly that that the Special Counsel must be permitted to finish his work. I assured you during our meeting – and I reiterate here – that, if confirmed, I will follow the Special Counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and I will allow Bob to complete his investigation.”

Barr told Congress Tuesday as his confirmation hearings began that Mueller’s investigation should continue unimpeded — and that the public should be informed of the results of that probe.

"I believe it is vitally important that the special counsel be allowed to complete his investigation," Barr said.

"I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the Special Counsel’s work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law," he added. "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 decisions."

Barr, 68, who has been counsel at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, was attorney general under the first President Bush from 1991 until 1993 after an 18-year civil service career that began at the CIA.

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