VIDEO - Sen. Chris Coons questions attorney general nominee in Tuesday testimony, with transcript.
Sen. Chris Coons, on the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned President Trump’s attorney general nominee William Barr Tuesday during the confirmation hearing.
“If you learned that the White House not directly through you, but through other means, was attempting to interfere with the investigation, would you report that information to the Special Counsel and to Congress?” asked Coons.
“There are some conclusions in there about interfering and, if I thought something improper was being done, then I would deal with it as Attorney General,” answered Barr.
“If the Special Counsel wants to subpoena the President’s testimony to ask questions about obstruction and your supervising the investigation, would you rely on that theory to block the subpoena?” asked Coons.
“Well, the question from me would be, what’s the predicate? And I don’t know that the facts are. I don’t know what the facts are. And, if there was a factual basis for doing it, and I couldn’t say that it violated established policies, then I wouldn’t interfere, but I don’t know what the facts are,” answered Barr.
Coons: Congratulations, Chairman Graham, I look forward to working with you in this Congress. And, thank you, Barr, and to you and your family for their service to our country through federal law enforcement and the Department of Justice.
You faced some questioning from Senator Cruz about your own confirmation hearing back in 1991, and I’d like to take us back to a previous confirmation hearing, which was at a more similar time to today than 1991, 1973. Senator Leahy asked you about the confirmation Elliot Richardson, President Nixon’s nominee to be Attorney General. That confirmation took place in the context of a similarly divided period of American history where there was great concern over the, at that point, ongoing Watergate investigation. Elliot Richardson reassured the country by making some important commitments during his confirmation hearing before this Committee. Then Senator Strom Thurmond asked Richardson if he wanted a special prosecutor who would and, I quote, ‘Shield no one and prosecute this case regardless of who was affected in any way, shape, or form.’ Richardson responded, ‘Exactly.’ Do you want Special Counsel Mueller to shield no one and prosecute the case regardless of who was affected?
Barr: I want Special Counsel Mueller to discharge his responsibilities as a federal prosecutor and exercise the judgment that he’s expected to exercise under the rules, and finish his job.
Coons: Senator Kennedy followed up by asking Richardson if the special prosecutor would have the complete authority and responsibility for determining whom he prosecuted and at what location Richardson said simply, ‘Yes.’ Would you give a similar answer?
Barr: No, I would give the answer that’s in the current regulations which is that the Special Counsel has broad discretion, but the acting Attorney General in this case Rod Rosenstein can ask him about major decisions and if they disagree on a major decision and if after giving great weight to the Special Counsel’s position, the acting Attorney General felt that it was so unwarranted under established policies that it should not be followed, then that would be reported to this Committee.
Coons: Forgive me, I only have seven minutes left. Let me make sure I understand you, Senators asked Elliot Richardson what he would do if he disagreed with the special prosecutor. Richardson testified to the Committee the special prosecutor’s judgment would prevail. That’s not what you’re saying. You’re saying if you have a difference of opinion with Special Counsel Mueller, you won’t necessarily back his decision, you might overrule it?
Barr: Under the regulations, there is the possibility of that, but this Committee would be aware of it. You know, a lot of water has gone under the dam since Elliot Richardson. A lot of different administrations on both parties have experimented with Special Counsel arrangements, and the existing rules I think reflect the experience of both Republican and Democratic administrations and strike the right balance. They are put together in the Clinton administration after Ken Starr’s investigation.
Coons: That’s right. So, the current regulations on the books right now prevent the Attorney General from firing without the cause the Special Counsel, they require misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict. Will you follow that standard?
Barr: Of course.
Coons: What if the President asked you to rescind or change those Special Counsel regulations?
Barr: I think those Special Counsel regulations should stay in place for the duration of this investigation and we can do a post-mortem then, but I have no reason to think they’re not working.
Coons: So, most famously, when directed by President Nixon to fire the Special Counsel, the prosecutor investigating Watergate, Richardson refused and resigned instead as we all well know. If the President directed you to change those regulations and then fire Mueller or simply directly fired Mueller, would you follow Richardson’s example and resign instead?
Barr: Assuming there was no good cause?
Coons: Assuming no good cause.
Barr: I would not carry out that instruction.
Coons: Let me bring us forward to your 1991 hearing in front of this Committee. You explained at the time how you would handle the BBCI case and ironically Robert Mueller, the same individual, was at that point the head of the criminal division, and you testified that you had directed Mueller to spare no resources, use whatever resources are necessary and pursue the investigation as aggressively as possible and follow the evidence anywhere and everywhere it leads. Would you give similar direction to Robert Mueller today?
Barr: I don’t think he needs that direction, I think that’s what he’s doing.
Coons: You also said at that hearing that Robert Mueller in that investigation had full cooperation, full support, and carte blanche. Could he expect a similar level of support from you as Attorney General?
Barr: Yeah, as I said, I’m going to carry out those regulations and I want him to finish this investigation.
Coons: I think we all do, and I’m encouraged by things you’ve said about this and want to make sure we’ve had as clear a conversation as we can. Attorney General Richardson also testified the relationship between the President and the Justice Department should “arms-length.” You’ve said similar things about the importance of shielding the Department from political influence. Can you make a similar commitment to us to maintain an arms-length relationship between the Justice Department and the President regarding the Special Counsel investigation and other investigations?
Barr: Well, remember I said there are like three different functions generally that the Attorney General performs. I think on the enforcement side, especially where matters are of either personal or political interest to people at the White House, there would be an, there has to be an arms-length relationship. The White House counsel can play a constructive role in that as well.
Coons: Let me ask, if the President asked for information that could well be used to interfere with the Special Counsel investigation to misdirect or curtail it in some way, would you give it to him?
Barr: You know, there are rules on what kind of information can flow and what kind of communication can go between the White House and I would follow those. But, the basic principle is that the integrity of an investigation has to be protected. There are times where you can share information that wouldn’t threaten the integrity of an investigation like, for example, when I was Attorney General and we were investigating something that related to someone who had a relationship with President Bush, I could orient him that you know there is going to be a story tomorrow that is going to say this, but in that particular case, there was no chance that it would affect the investigation. So, sometimes judgment calls are necessary.
Coons: If you learned that the White House not directly through you, but through other means, was attempting to interfere with the investigation, would you report that information to the Special Counsel and to Congress?
Barr: There are some conclusions in there about interfering and, if I thought something improper was being done, then I would deal with it as Attorney General.
Coons: Last, in that confirmation hearing back in 1973, then-Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana asked Richardson, ‘Suppose the prosecutor determines it’s necessary to get the President’s affidavit or to have his testimony personally, would that be the kind of determination he--the special prosecutor--could make?’ Richardson said, ‘Yes.’ Will you give a similar answer today that you won’t interfere with Special Counsel Mueller seeking testimony from the President?
Barr: You know, I think, as I say, the regulations currently provide some avenue if there is some disagreement. I think that, in order to overrule Mueller, someone would--the Attorney General or acting Attorney General--would have to determine, after giving Mueller’s position great weight, that it was so unwarranted under established policies that it should not be done. So, that’s the standard I would apply, but I’m not going to surrender--the regulations give some responsibility to the Attorney General to have this sort of general supervision--not day-to-day supervision--but sort of be there in case something really transcends the established policies. I’m not surrendering that responsibility. I’m not pledging it away.
Coons: What gives me pause and sort of led me to this line of questioning, Barr, was that June 2018 you sent to the Deputy Attorney General in which at one point you state, ‘Mueller should not be permitted to demand the President submit to interrogation about alleged obstruction.’ If the Special Counsel wants to subpoena the President’s testimony to ask questions about obstruction and your supervising the investigation, would you rely on that theory to block the subpoena?
Barr: Well, the question from me would be, what’s the predicate? And I don’t know that the facts are. I don’t know what the facts are. And, if there was a factual basis for doing it, and I couldn’t say that it violated established policies, then I wouldn’t interfere, but I don’t know what the facts are.
Coons: Well, if I might in closing, Mr. Chairman, we’re in this unique situation where you’ve known Robert Mueller thirty years. You’ve said you respect and admire his professionalism, his conduct, he’s been entrusted by you with a significant, complex investigations in the past, there’s no reason to imagine since he is the person who would know the facts, that he wouldn’t be acting in an inappropriate way so it is my hope, even my expectation, that you would trust Robert Mueller to make the decision whether to compel this President to testify in an appropriate way and that he would not face any interference. Thank you for your testimony.