Vowing "I will not be bullied," President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general asserted independence from the White House on Tuesday, saying he believed that Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, that the special counsel investigation shadowing Trump is not a witch hunt, and that his predecessor was right to recuse himself from the probe. The comments by William Barr at his Senate confirmation hearing pointedly departed from Trump's own views and underscored Barr's efforts to reassure Democrats that he will not be a loyalist to a president who has appeared to demand it from law enforcement. He also repeatedly sought to assuage concerns that he might disturb or upend special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as it reaches its final stages, the AP reports. Some Democrats are concerned about that very possibility, citing a memo Barr wrote to the Justice Department before his nomination in which he criticized Mueller's investigation for the way it was presumably looking into whether Trump had obstructed justice.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Barr the memo showed "a determined effort, I thought, to undermine Bob Mueller." The nominee told senators he was merely trying to advised Justice Department officials against "stretching the statute beyond what was intended" to conclude that the president had obstructed justice. Barr stated without hesitation that it was in the public interest for Mueller to finish his investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to sway the presidential election. He said he would resist any order by Trump to fire Mueller without cause and called it "unimaginable" that Mueller would do anything to require his termination. "I believe the Russians interfered or attempted to interfere with the election, and I think we have to get to the bottom of it," Barr said during the nine-hour hearing. (Much more on the hearing here; in related news, the acting AG will testify before the House Judiciary Committee next month.)