‘I’ll protect Russia probe’, promises Trump’s pick for US attorney general

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WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, William Barr, told lawmakers on Tuesday that he would protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian election meddling from political pressure, despite his past criticism of the inquiry.

“On my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work,” Barr said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Mueller probe has been a cloud over Trump’s two years in office and a frequent target of criticism by the president and his allies. It is focused on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor, any possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign and any subsequent obstruction of justice.

Barr, who was attorney general under Republican President George H.W. Bush in the 1990s, faced questions about an unsolicited, 19-page memo he wrote last year that called Mueller’s probe “fatally misconceived” for examining whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey in 2017.

“It does raise questions about your willingness to reach conclusions before knowing the facts, and whether you prejudge the Mueller investigation,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, said as the hearing began.

Barr said his memo from last year did not question the legitimacy of the Mueller probe as a whole, but only expressed concerns that the special counsel might be improperly interpreting one aspect of the law.

“I think it was entirely proper,” Barr said, saying it was not unusual for former Justice Department officials to share their views of legal matters. He said he had written a similar memo criticizing the department’s corruption case against Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, which ended in a mistrial in 2017.

Barr’s nomination is expected to win approval in the Senate, where he has broad support among Republicans who control the chamber. Barr could also benefit from the fact that some Democrats view him as a better option the man who took over the job after Trump forced out Jeff Sessions last year, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.

Trump frequently criticizes the Mueller probe as a “witch hunt” and has denied any collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. Russia has denied U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings that it interfered in the 2016 election.

“I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” Barr said.

Mueller is due to submit his findings to the attorney general, prompting concern from some Democrats that the Trump administration will try to quash the report. Barr said he would make as much of Mueller’s findings public as possible.

During his tenure as attorney general, Sessions faced repeated attacks from Trump for recusing himself from oversight of the probe. Sessions did this after it emerged that he had met with Russian officials while working with the Trump election campaign. Barr said Sessions “did the right thing” by recusing himself.

In his two-day confirmation hearing, Barr was also expected to face questions about his views on prison sentencing, antitrust enforcement and other issues he would face as head of the Justice Department. But the Mueller probe will likely dominate the committee’s discussion.

Mueller has secured indictments against or guilty pleas from 33 people and three Russian companies, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Barr’s views of presidential power could be important as prosecutors and Democrats in the House of Representatives, where they hold the majority, intensify investigations of Trump’s personal business practices and his presidency.