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William Barr Confirmation Hearing. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired January 15, 2019 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:00:00] WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Keeping the peace within a community. And if speech is suppressed, it can lead to the building up of pressures within society that sometimes can be explosive.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: How about your views on religious liberty and would you share your thoughts on the important of the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment in terms of protecting our diverse and pluralistic society?
BARR: Yes. I -- I -- you know, I think -- I think the framers believed that the -- our system -- they said that our system only works if the people are in a position to control themselves. Our -- our government is an -- is an experiment in how much freedom we can allow the people without tearing ourselves apart. And they believed fewer laws, more self-control. And they believed that part of that self-control -- and I know there are many people here who disagree -- in our -- not here, but in our society who disagree, but they believe part of that self- control ultimately came from religious values.
And I think it's important underpinning of our system that we permit -- I believe in the separation of church and state but I am sometimes concerned that we not use governmental power to suppress the freedoms of traditional religious communities in our country.
CRUZ: Final question. The Department of Justice is charged with defending the United States but that doesn't mean that the Department of Justice always must argue for maximum federal power. There are important restraints on federal power, whether civil liberties protections in a criminal context, whether the takings clause or whether the 10th Amendment and federalism. Can -- can you briefly share your thoughts on -- on the appropriate balance of respecting the limitations on federal power?
BARR: Well as you -- as you say, the Constitution has many different forms of restraint on -- on federal power. Part of it is, in fact, the separation of powers within the federal government, part of it is the balance between the federalist -- the federalist system we have and the central government and -- and respecting the rights of the states and local communities. And part of it is the Bill of Rights that on certain topics constrains the role of the federal government.
And those are all important checks on federal power. And, you know, I am concerned about our country becoming just a unitary state, that we try to govern centrally 350 million people. I think a lot of our current tensions in society are because we are turning our back on the federalist model. There are certain things that have to be protected by the federal government. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that. But the more we can decentralize decision-making, the more we can allow people a real diversity in the country of approaches to things, I think we'll have less of an explosive situation.
CRUZ: I very much agree. Thank you, Mr. Barr.
GRAHAM: Freedom of speech has to be balanced by the freedom to question. Senator Coons.
COONS: Congratulations Chairman Graham, I look forward to working with you in this Congress, and thank you, Mr. Barr to you and your family for their service to our country through federal law enforcement and the Department of Justice.
You just faced some questioning from a Senator Cruz about your own confirmation hearing back in 1991 and I'd like to take us back to a previous confirmation hearing which was at a more similar time to today than 1991, 1973. Senator Leahy asked you about the confirmation of Elliot Richardson, President Nixon's nominee to be attorney general. That confirmation took place in the context of a similarly divided period in American history where there was great concern over the, at that point, ongoing Watergate investigation.
And Elliot Richardson reassured the country by making some important commitments during his confirmation hearing before this committee. Then Senator Strom Thurmond asked Richardson if he wanted a special prosecutor who would, and I quote, "shield no one and prosecute this case regardless of who is affected in any way, shape or form." Richardson responded, "exactly." Do you want Special Counsel Mueller to shield no one and prosecute the case regardless of who is affected?
BARR: I want -- I want Special Counsel Mueller to discharge his responsibilities as a federal prosecutor and exercise the judgment that he's expected to exercise under the rules and finish his job.
COONS: Senator Kennedy followed up by asking Richardson if the special prosecutor would have the complete authority and responsibility for determining whom he prosecuted and at what location. Richardson said simply, yes. Would you give a similar answer?
BARR: No, I would give the answer that's in the current regulations, which is that the special counsel has no broad discretion, but the acting attorney general in this case, Rod Rosenstein can ask them about major decisions and if they disagree on a major decision, and if after giving great weight to the special counsel's position, the acting attorney general felt that it was so unwarranted under established policies that it should not be followed, and that would be reported to this committee. I...
COONS: Please forgive me; I have only got seven minutes and a number of other questions. Let me just make sure I understand you; senators asked Elliot Richardson what he would do if he disagreed with the special prosecutor. Richardson testified to the committee the special prosecutor's judgment would prevail. That's not what you're saying. You have a difference of opinion that Special Counsel Mueller -- you won't necessarily back his decision, you might overrule it.
BARR: I would -- under the regulations there is -- there is the possibility of that, but this -- this committee would not -- would be aware of it. A lot of water is gone under the dam since -- since Elliott Richardson, a lot of different administrations on both parties have experimented with special counsel arrangement and the existing rules, I think reflect the experience of both Republican and Democratic administrations and strike the right balance. They are put together in the Clinton administration after Ken Starr's investigation.
COONS: That's right. So the current regulations on the books right now prevent the attorney general from firing without cause the special counsel. They require misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict. Will you follow that standard?
BARR: Of course.
COONS: What if the president asked you to rescind or change those special counsel regulations?
BARR: I think those special counsel regulation should stay in place for the duration of this investigation, and -- and we can do a postmortem then, but I -- I have no reason to think they're not working.
COONS: So most famously when directed by President Nixon to fire the special counsel, the prosecutor investigating Watergate, Richardson refused and resigned instead as we all well know. If the president directed you to change those regulations and then fired Mueller or simply directly fired Mueller, would you follow Richardson's example and resigned instead?
BARR: Assuming there was no good cause?
COONS: Assuming no good cause.
BARR: I -- I would -- I would not carry out that instruction.
COONS: Let me bring this forward to your 1991 hearing in front of this committee. You explained at the time how you would handle of the BCCI case and ironically Robert Mueller, the same individual, was at that point the head of the criminal division and you testified that you had directed Mueller to spare no resources, use whatever resources are necessary and pursue the investigation as aggressively as possible and follow the evidence anywhere and everywhere it leads. Would you give similar directions Robert Mueller today?
BARR: I don't think he needs that direction, I think that's what he's doing.
COONS: You also said at that hearing that Robert Mueller in that investigation had full cooperation, full support and carte blanche. Could he expect a similar level of support from you as attorney general?
BARR: He will -- as I said, I'm going to carry out those regulations and I want him to finish this investigation.
COONS: I think we all do and I am encouraged by things you've said about this and just want to make sure we've had as clear conversation as we can. Attorney General Richardson also testified the relationship between the present and the Justice Department should be arm's-length. You've said similar things about the importance of shielding the department from political influence. Can you make a similar commitment us to maintain an arm's-length relationship between the Justice Department and the president regarding the special counsel investigation and other investigations?
BARR: Well, remember I said there are like three different functions generally that the attorney general performs, I think on the enforcement side, especially where matters are of either personal or political interest to people at the White House, then that there would be -- there has to be an arm's-length relationship. The White House counsel can play a constructive role in that as well.
COONS: Let me ask, if the -- if the president asked for information that could well be used to interfere with the special counsel investigation to misdirect or curtail it in some way, would you give it to him?
BARR: I mean, there are rules on what kind of information can flow and what kind of communications can go between the White House and -- and I would follow those.
But the basic principle is that the integrity of an investigation has to be protected. There are times where you can share information that is -- wouldn't threatening the integrity of an investigation, like for example, when I was attorney general and -- and we were investigating something that the related to president -- someone who had a relationship with President Bush, I could just orient them that the others would be a story tomorrow that says this, but in that particular case there was no chance that it would affect the investigation. So sometimes judgment calls are necessary.
COONS: If you learn that the White House, not directly through you but through other means, was attempting to interfere with the investigation, would you report that information to the special counsel and to Congress?
BARR: There's some conclusions in there about interfering, and you know if I thought something improper was being done, then I would deal with it as Attorney General.
COONS: Last, in that confirmation hearing back in 1973, then Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana asked Richardson, suppose the prosecutor determines it's necessary to get the president's affidavit, or to have his testimony personally. Would that be the kind of determination hem, the special prosecutor could make? Richardson said, "Yes." Will you give a similar answer today that you won't interfere with Special Council Mueller seeking testimony from the president?
BARR: I think, as I say, the regulations currently provide some avenue if there's some disagreement. I think that in order to overrule Mueller, someone would have to -- the attorney general or the acting attorney general would have to determine, after giving Mueller's position great weight that it was so unwarranted under established policies that it should not be done.
So that's the standard I would apply, but I'm not going to surrender -- the -- the regulations give some responsibility to the attorney general to have this sort of general -- not day-to-day supervision, but sort of be there in case something really transcends the established policies. I'm not surrendering that responsibility, I'm not pledging it away.
COONS: What gives me pause and sort of lead me to this line of questioning, Mr. Barr, was the June 2018 memo you sent to the deputy attorney general. In which at one point you state Muller should not be permitted to demand the president submit to interrogation about alleged obstruction. If the special counsel wants to subpoena the president's testimony to ask questions about obstruction, and you're supervising the investigation -- would you rely on that theory to block the subpoena?
BARR: Well the question from me would be what's the predicate, you know? And I don't know what the facts are, I don't know what the facts are. And if there was a factual basis for doing it, and I -- and I couldn't say that it violated established policies then I wouldn't interfere, but I don't know what the facts are.
COONS: Well, if I might just in closing, Mr. Chairman, we're in this unique situation where you've known Robert Mueller 30 years. You've said you respect and admire his professionalism, his conduct. He has been entrusted by you, with significant, complex investigations in the past. There's no reason to imagine, since he is the person who would know the facts, that he wouldn't be acting in an inappropriate way.
So it is my -- not my hope, even my expectation that you would trust Robert Mueller to make that decision about whether to compel the president to testify in an appropriate way and that he would not face any interference. Thank you for your testimony today, look forward to our next round.
BARR: Thank you.
GRAHAM: Senator Sasse.
[13:15:00] SASSE: Thank you Mr. Chairman and congratulations on your new calling. Liam I have career advice, I won't do it on camera -- we want to know if you're taking notes for your cousins about career advice though we'll ask you later.
(LAUGHTER) General, congratulations on your nomination and thanks for your past service. I had planned to ask you for some pledges related to the Mueller investigation, in private to me, in public today I think you've already done that.
How should the American people think about what the Mueller investigation is about?
BARR: I think that there were allegations made of Russian attempts to interfere in the election, and there were allegations made that some Americans were in cahoots with the Russians and the word is now -- that's being used is "collusion". And as I understand it Mueller is looking in to those allegations.
SASSE: A lot of the media summary of the investigation starts with people's views and who they voted for in the 2016 presidential election and for those of who spend a lot of time reading intelligence reports, and four of us on this Committee are about to leave to go to an intelligence briefing.
What Russia is doing to the U.S. is big, and broad, and not constrained to the 2016 election. And increasingly it feels like the American people reduce Russia to just how you thought about the 2016 presidential election. So since you'll have serious supervisory responsibilities over part of the intelligence community -- is Putin a friend or a foe, and what are his long-term objectives toward the U.S.?
BARR: Well I don't hold myself out as a foreign policy expert, but I think that he is -- I think the Russians are a potent rival of our country. And his foreign policy objectives are usually directly contrary to our goals. I think he wants to weaken the American alliances in Europe, and he also wants to become a player -- more of a player in the Middle East.
A lot of his foreign policy objectives are at odds with ours. At the same time, I think the primary rival of the United States is China. I think Russia is half the size it was when we were facing them at the peak of the Cold War. Their economy is long-term prognosis is nowhere near China's. I also feel that part of what Russia's up to is trying to hold on to Ukraine and be Belarussia in their orbit. But I'm concerned that the fixation on Russia, would not obscure the danger from China.
SASSE: I want to ask you some China questions as well, I want to ask your role on the president's intelligence advisory board but sticking with Russia for a minute, does Putin have any long-term ideological alignment with the U.S., or does he have other objectives trying to so discord broadly here?
BARR: You know, I'm not an expert on this area, but I think there are -- I think there may be some potential areas where we our interests could be aligned.
SASSE: But when he interferes here, does he have long-term interests in the success of one or another political party? Or does he have specific interest in sowing chaos and discord to make Americans distrust one another?
And one of the reasons I ask is because I'd love to have you say in public, some of what you said to me about -- at the end of this investigation, what happens next? Are you concerned that when the Mueller report is received, quite a part -- the narrowest pieces, you know where I'm headed.
BARR: So I mean, I think that the basic vulnerability of the United States in the age in which we live -- the internet age, the globalization of information and so forth, is the vulnerability that we're seeing which is people can create doubt under confidence in our election - our election process and also torque our public discourse in ways that we find hard to perceive.
And this has long-term danger for the United States in the survival of a Democratic society like ours. And so, I hope that, whatever the outcome of the Mueller, that we view this as a bigger problem of - of foreign interference in our elections, which is why I said it was one of my priorities.
And it's not just the Russians; it's other countries as well, and we have to focus on that. We have to ensure that we're doing all we can. And I'm not sure all of that is defensive either, I mean in terms of law enforcement. And I think there's - we have to look at all options, including sanctions and other options, to deter organized efforts to interfere in our elections.
SASSE: So you have no reason to doubt any aspect of the Intelligence Community's composite assessment about Russian efforts in the 2016 election?
BARR: I have no reason to doubt that the Russians attempted to interfere in our election.
SASSE: And Dan Coats, the National Intelligence director, has testified in public and has said, in different media context, that Russia is already plotting for the 2020 elections in the U.S. You have no reason to doubt that?
BARR: Yes (ph). I haven't - you know, I - I haven't seen those reports. I had reviewed the reports about the 2016, but I have no reason to doubt it.
SASSE: And can you explain what your role is on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board?
BARR: I'm actually a consultant; I'm an advisor on - on sort of legal issues. Obviously, I'm stepping down from that position, if I'm confirmed, but I've been just advising. I'm not a member of the board. I'm on the CIA's external advisory board, and - and, you know, I have been participating on that as well.
SASSE: When you talk about the long-term --
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Our special coverage continues in just a moment. SASSE: To also sew different kinds of discord in the U.S., obviously
[13:25:19] KEILAR: We are returning now to CNN's special coverage of the confirmation hearing of William Barr, President Trump's pick for attorney general. He just said in a response to a question from Senator Ben Sasse that he would resign if asked to do something unlawful.
Let's listen in.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Congratulate you and I look forward to working with you and congratulate also the new members of our committee that have joined us. And thank you very much, Mr. Barr, for being here today, for your past record of public service. And I hope I am perhaps the last to make reference to your grandson by saying that if he makes it through this hearing today, he can have any job he wants in this building.
Let me say first that, as a former United States attorney I share your allegiance and admiration for the Department of Justice and equally so the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
And I know that you respect Mr. Wray, the current director, but I think you would agree with me that the FBI is probably one of the best, if not the most professional, accomplished, skilled and dedicated law enforcement agencies in the world. Would you agree?
BARR: Yes, Senator.
BLUMENTHAL: And I hope that the president agrees with you and perhaps shares that view more publicly in the future. When the FBI begins a counterintelligence investigation, if it is of the president of the United States for working with a foreign adversary, that decision would be subject to multiple levels of review within the FBI. Correct?
BARR: I assume; I don't know what rules were in effect at the time.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, in your experience, there would be?
BARR: Yes. Yes.
BLUMENTHAL: And you have no reason to think that those rules have changed?
BARR: I don't know what the practice was. It was - there was ...
BLUMENTHAL: And almost certainly, in that kind of extraordinary investigation, you would agree with me, it would be extraordinary for the FBI to be investigating the president for working with a determined foreign adversary. There probably would be information shared with the deputy attorney general or the attorney general. Agreed? BARR: I would - I would hope so. The reason I'm hesitating is because some of these texts that we've all read are so weird and beyond my experience with the FBI, I don't know what was going on.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, these reports are stomach-turning in terms of the absolutely stunning and unprecedented kind of investigation that they reflect. You'd agree?
BARR: You mean the texts are stomach-turning?
BLUMENTHAL: The reports of the investigation of the president.
BARR: I'm not sure what you're talking about when you say the reports of the investigation.
BLUMENTHAL: The reports that the FBI opened an investigation of the president for working with a foreign adversary, Russia.
BARR: And what's stomach-turning about that? I'm - what is stomach- turning? The ...
BLUMENTHAL: The allegation against the president or the fact that the allegation would be made and be under investigation.
Well, let me move on. I want to talk about transparency. Would you commit - will you commit to this committee that you will not allow the president or his attorneys to edit or change the special counsel report before it is submitted to Congress or the public?
BARR: I've already said that I would not permit editing of my report, whatever report I or whoever's the attorney general makes.
BLUMENTHAL: And will you commit that you will come to Congress and explain any deletions or changes that are made to that report before it is issued?
BARR: OK, so there are different reports at work here. Which report are you - there are two different reports ...
BLUMENTHAL: I'm talking about the special counsel report.
BARR: OK, well, under the current regulations, the special counsel report is confidential. And the report that - the report that goes public would be a report by the attorney general.
BLUMENTHAL: Will you commit that you will explain to us any changes or deletions that you make to the special counsel report that's submitted to you in whatever you present to us?
BARR: I will commit to providing as much information as I can consistent with the