Barr also played down a meeting he had with Trump in June 2017, set up by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, about the possibility of “augmenting” Trump’s defense team. He turned down the offer and said he didn’t hear from Trump again until he was under consideration for the attorney-general job.
Senate Democrats also seemed particularly irked by Barr’s claim that he would not necessarily follow ethics officials’ advice if they recommended, given his memo and contacts with Trump and his legal team, that he recuse himself from the Mueller investigation.
“Under the regulations, I make the decision, as the head of the agency, as to my own recusal,” Barr said when asked by Democratic Senator Pat Leahy whether he would seek and follow their advice on recusal. “So I certainly would consult with them, and at the end of the day, I would make a decision in good faith based on the laws and the facts that are evident at that time.” Democratic Senator Kamala Harris doubled down on that response, asking under what circumstances Barr would break with career ethics professionals on the recusal question. “If I disagree with them,” Barr replied curtly.
Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats are wary of the precedent set by Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who disregarded ethics officials’ advice that he recuse himself from the Mueller investigation due to his past statements and writings criticizing that probe.
“The poor judgment Mr. Whitaker demonstrated in rejecting the advice of career ethics officials should not establish a precedent for Mr. Barr or any other senior DOJ official to similarly disregard the independent assessment of conflicts of interest by career DOJ staff,” they wrote in a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general last week.
Ultimately, though, Democrats seemed most concerned about Barr’s unwillingness to commit to making the final Mueller report public. In recent days, Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, has said that he hopes Trump’s legal team will get to review and “correct” any report before it is given to Congress or made public. Barr shot that down during the hearing—“that will not happen,” he said. He would only commit to acting “consistent with regulations and the law” when it comes to public disclosure of the report. He also left the door open to Trump using executive privilege to block the release of some material.
“I don’t have a clue as to what would be in the report,” Barr said. “In theory, if there was executive-privilege material to which an executive-privilege claim could be made, it might—someone might raise a claim of executive privilege.”