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Barr Plans To Allow Mueller Probe To Conclude, Sen. Klobuchar Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

William Barr has begun his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is President Trump's nominee to be attorney general, a job that he had once before under President George H.W. Bush. One of the senators who will question Barr is Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who came into our studio shortly before that hearing began.

Senator Klobuchar, welcome back to the studios.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, thanks. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is William Barr qualified?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, he clearly has experience from his many years in legal practice as well as a former attorney general. But qualified also means that someone should be able to be fair and administer justice. And so my concern going into the hearing and some of the things I'm going to focus on when he is under oath is the fact that, literally just last June, he sent a memo in which he questioned the Mueller investigation that's so important to getting to the truth of what happened with Russia's influence in our last election.

INSKEEP: This was a memo that was sent to, effectively, supporters of the president - lawyers for the president, lawmakers, other people. Is that correct?

KLOBUCHAR: Exactly. Well, he said in the memo that the investigation was fatally misconceived; those were his words. And now he would be in the highest justice office that would oversee it. And the people he sent it to - and this is what's really concerning. We just found this out last night. When he - the administration sent a letter back to Lindsey Graham explaining who had gotten this memo. So as a private citizen, Mr. Barr sent this memo to the president's private lawyers in his personal capacity; sent it to, of course, the White House counsel; sent it to, it looks like, over 10 people, including prominent members of the Federalist Society and the conservative legal community. So this just gets to our theory that this was kind of a job application, an essay you'd write if you'd want to be attorney general for Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: And we will note as a matter of fact here that our correspondent Ryan Lucas has been reporting on this. And you are correct that that memo was sent and that it was sent to those people according to the administration, although William Barr's defense is - sure, I weighed in with a negative opinion about the investigation of Russian influence in U.S. politics. But I did that as a private citizen. My duties as a public servant would be different.

KLOBUCHAR: He can say that. But again, we only have the evidence before us. And that is that he sent this memo, strangely, just literally a few months before Jeff Sessions gets fired and then he gets nominated for this job. So we're going to be asking - when did you send it to those people, why did you say it, and what are you going to do about the Mueller investigation?

One bit of good news - in my meeting with him as well as in the opening statement, he did say that he would allow the Mueller investigation to be completed. And so we'll be asking questions, I will how about the scope of the investigation? The Justice Department can limit that. How about the budget? And we're really trying to get at - one, is he going to allow this investigation to be completed given that the president attacks it nearly on a daily basis? And then No. 2, are we going to be able to see a public report? And that part is interesting because he has said both to me and in his opening statement that he wants to have this information public. But yet, he sort of couches it in terms of as the law will allow. Well, he can interpret the law many ways, so we're concerned about - that the whole report get out there to the public.

INSKEEP: Although isn't that fair of him to say, I'm going to be as transparent as the law will allow because I certainly can't promise to do something illegal for you?

KLOBUCHAR: It is better than if he said he wasn't going to release the report at all. The issue is that he says - well, I got to look at the regulations. And you've got the fact that in this memo, he made many comments which would imply that he thinks the president has broad executive power, just like Justice Kavanaugh in his hearings did, and that the president shouldn't basically be brought up on obstruction of justice charges if it's in his official capacity. Yet he made some exceptions for if he asked a witness to commit perjury or if he asked someone to change their testimony. So those are the things we're going to explore. This is so important right now - when we're at the cusp of getting the findings from this investigation, when 37 people have been indicted - that we allow justice to do its course. This is about a foreign government trying to influence our election.

INSKEEP: Let's remember that the previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was someone who was strongly supportive of President Trump, had a lot of positions that I'm sure - maybe nearly all positions that I'm sure that you would disagree with, Senator. Yet he revealed himself to have, when it came to the Mueller investigation, a certain amount of integrity.

KLOBUCHAR: Correct.

INSKEEP: He refused to be interfered with and recused himself from that investigation when he felt it was appropriate. Do you see any sign that William Barr, even if you disagree with him about many things, has that same integrity?

KLOBUCHAR: I have a feeling, if you were asking questions, Steve, you would ask that question - will he recuse himself? And we will, too. But here's the point. He commended Jeff Sessions for recusing himself and following the rules of the career ethics lawyers. So I'm going to ask him - well, do you think Whitaker did the right thing in not recusing himself?

INSKEEP: Oh, Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general.

KLOBUCHAR: Yeah, 'cause he went against the ethics. And then I'm going to ask, as well, Mr. Barr if he should recuse himself because of this memo and other things he said. So you can't go commend Sessions and then not follow the rules of the ethics career advice yourself.

INSKEEP: Senator Klobuchar, are you planning any more trips to Iowa soon?

KLOBUCHAR: Stay tuned. I love going south for the winter.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) You are really going south for the winter again.

KLOBUCHAR: Iowa is right south of Minnesota. We share a lovely border, and it's south for the winter.

INSKEEP: OK. And I'll just note that people are following your travel schedule because you have said, on this program and elsewhere, you're one of many Democrats thinking of running for president.

KLOBUCHAR: Well, thank you. Appreciate that.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

NPR's Ryan Lucas, who's been covering this story, has been listening in from another studio, and he joins us once again. Ryan, what'd you hear there?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, there were a couple of things. But first and foremost, if people were keeping tabs on William Barr's confirmation hearing and wondering what it would be about, I think that Senator Klobuchar made clear that this is going to focus, to an exceeding amount, on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and concerns that the Democrats have about Barr and whether he will interfere in the investigation, whether he will release any sort of final report.

There's one important clarification that I need to make on what Senator Klobuchar said about the memo that Barr wrote about the Mueller investigation. He did not say that the investigation itself was fatally misconceived. That memo was about one aspect of the investigation, potential obstruction of justice by the president related to the firing of James Comey. That is, in particular, what Bill Barr said may be fatally misconceived. It's...

INSKEEP: A detail of the investigation, so to speak...

LUCAS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Whether Comey's firing was obstruction of justice.

LUCAS: Not the entire Russia investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia - so there is an important difference there.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks for clarifying that, Ryan. Really appreciate it.

LUCAS: My pleasure.

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