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Attorney General Nominee Appears Before Senate Judiciary Committee

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

William Barr faces questions before the Senate today. His hearing for the post of attorney general underlines the complexities of the job he is seeking. In effect, he would have multiple masters if confirmed. Under the Constitution, he is appointed by the president. But he must be confirmed by the Senate. He is answerable to Congress. And above all, he's supposed to enforce the law. Senators want to know how Barr will handle those conflicting forces because the attorney general oversees an investigation of Russian involvement in U.S. politics, an investigation that has come close to the president himself. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been covering this story.

Hi there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is William Barr's background?

LUCAS: Well, he's very much a Republican establishment lawyer. He served as attorney general once before. That was from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush. He held other senior positions in the department as well. During the first Bush administration, he led the Office of Legal Counsel and then later, served as the deputy attorney general, which put him in charge of running the day-to-day affairs of the DOJ. So he would bring a lot of experience to the job. He knows the Justice Department. People who worked with him there say that he cares deeply about it. Now, he would be taking over from acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who stepped in on a temporary basis after Jeff Sessions resigned under pressure from the White House.

INSKEEP: Given that depth of experience, what has he said or done that would make this confirmation anything less than automatic?

LUCAS: Well, Republicans certainly support his nomination. But the focus for Democrats in the confirmation hearing is going to be on things that Barr has said, criticisms that he has made about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Topping that list for Democrats is an unsolicited memo that Barr wrote last year to the Justice Department. And in that memo, he essentially says that Mueller would be wrong to pursue an obstruction of justice case against President Trump, tied to Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. Now...

INSKEEP: So from a Democratic perspective, he has weighed in with an opinion about something that he should be judging impartially.

LUCAS: It raises questions about whether he would be impartial overseeing that investigation, yes. Now, we learned last night from a letter that Barr sent to the committee chairman that Barr shared the memo or discussed it with several people, including many of President Trump's lawyers, as well as the man who is now White House counsel. Now, Barr was a private citizen when he wrote the memo. He says that it was - he wrote it. It was based solely on information that was publicly available. But for Democrats, that has not been enough so far. Some have said that they want Barr to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe. They've called at a minimum for him to commit to allow it to proceed unimpeded. And they want him to promise to release to Congress and the public the final report that Mueller is expected to draw.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note the importance of him saying he was a private citizen at the time is that you may have any number of private opinions but still might be able to understand you have a public duty to behave in a certain way once you become an official.

LUCAS: Right.

INSKEEP: That would be Barr's explanation - Democrats, though, not accepting that. Is Barr likely to recuse himself or do anything else that Democrats are demanding?

LUCAS: It seems very unlikely that he would recuse himself. The Justice Department released a copy of Barr's written testimony yesterday. And in those prepared remarks, Barr certainly stops well short of recusing himself. Now, according to those remarks, he plans to tell lawmakers that it's vitally important that Mueller be allowed to finish his investigation and that the country needs answers and a resolution to all of these issues that kind of encircle us right now. He also plans to say that he will be an independent attorney general. He won't interfere in the probe. And he plans to say that the public and Congress need to be informed of Mueller's results. But he does stop short of saying that he will release them. He says that he will be as transparent as possible consistent with the law.

INSKEEP: Oh, leaving a little bit of space to maybe not reveal everything if he decides as attorney general that would be a better course.

Ryan, thanks for the update. Appreciate it.

LUCAS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.