January 28, 2019 / 4:53 PM / 6 months ago

U.S. attorney general pick says he has discussed Mueller probe with Pence

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, told U.S. lawmakers in comments released on Monday that while he has never spoken about the substance of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation with Trump, he has discussed it in broad terms with Vice President Mike Pence.

William Barr testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be attorney general of the United States on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

In written answers to questions posed by Senate Judiciary Committee members, Barr also said he has discussed with Justice Department officials the issue of recusing himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. The committee is due to vote on Tuesday on whether to endorse Barr’s nomination and send it to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

“The President has not asked me my views about any aspect of the investigation, and he has not asked me about what I would do about anything in the investigation,” Barr wrote in response to questions posed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

But Barr said that since the spring of 2017, he has discussed a variety of issues with Pence including a “general discussion” of Mueller’s probe and “I gave my views on such matters as Bob Mueller’s high integrity and various media reports.”

“In these conversations, I did not provide legal advice, nor, to the best of my recollection, did he provide confidential information,” Barr wrote, referring to Pence.

The Republican president has called Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt, though Barr in his confirmation hearing this month said he would let the special counsel complete the probe and pledged to make as many details of Mueller’s findings public as he can, once the work is completed.

Barr, nominated after Trump fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general in November, has been criticized by Democrats over a memo he sent to Justice Department and White House officials last year that called Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump committed obstruction of justice “fatally misconceived.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Barr would oversee Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s presidential campaign conspired with Russia. Trump has denied collusion. Russian has denied election interference.

Barr said during his hearing and in his written responses does not plan to overhaul Justice Department regulations so Mueller could be fired at will. Under current rules, Mueller can be fired only for misconduct or other wrongdoing.

“I would not countenance changing the existing regulations for the purpose of removing Special Counsel Mueller without good cause,” Barr wrote to the senators.

‘GOOD FAITH’

Some Democrats have questioned whether Barr should recuse himself from overseeing Mueller because of his memo. Barr said in his written responses he has discussed recusal issues related to the memo with department officials, but not the White House.

“If confirmed, I will consult with the Department’s career ethics officials, review the facts, and make a decision regarding my recusal from any matter in good faith,” Barr wrote, adding that while he is unfamiliar with protocol for disclosing ethics advice to Congress he would be “as transparent as possible.”

Democrats have raised concerns about whether Barr will adequately disclose to Congress all the details of Mueller’s inquiry, including any decisions not to charge certain people. Barr has signaled some details might remain under wraps.

In responses to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin’s questions, Barr cited a Justice Department manual that he said “cautions prosecutors to be sensitive to the privacy and reputational interests of uncharged third parties.”

“It is department policy and practice not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution,” Barr added.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham

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