President Donald Trump's Justice nominee faces questions over Russia probe

House Democrats will scrutinize claims of an FBI probe into whether US President Donald Trump has been working on behalf of Russia.
It is feared that attorney-general nominee Bill Barr will protect Mr Trump from the Mueller investigation and a possible impeachment effort arising from it.
It is feared that attorney-general nominee Bill Barr will protect Mr Trump from the Mueller investigation and a possible impeachment effort arising from it.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - United States President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice, Mr Bill Barr, faces tough questions in the Senate this week on whether he intends to curb Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia collusion investigation.

After the conservative lawyer criticised Mr Mueller last year, opposition Democrats fear that Mr Barr, as attorney-general, will protect Mr Trump from the investigation and a possible impeachment effort arising from it.

Mr Mueller has spent 20 months investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible collusion between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia, in a probe increasingly focused on Mr Trump and his inner circle.

Mr Mueller has issued indictments for 33 individuals, most of them Russians, and secured convictions of three former top Trump aides.

Mr Barr, a longtime Republican ally who served as attorney-general once before from 1991-93, will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee in confirmation hearings on Tuesday (Jan 15) and Wednesday. Democrats want him to pledge publicly to protect the investigation.

Mr Barr's approval is likely, given the Republican majority in the committee and the full Senate.

Senators who spoke to Mr Barr in private meetings say he has indicated that he will not interfere with Mr Mueller, but that he also supports Mr Trump using his executive powers to defend himself.

 

"I think the main thing people want to know is, what's his view of the Mueller investigation?" said the Judiciary Committee's Republican chairman Lindsey Graham, after meeting Mr Mueller last Wednesday.

"I can assure you, based on what I heard, that he has a high opinion of Mr Mueller."

Mr Barr "has no reason for Mr Mueller to stop doing his job, and is committed to allowing Mr Mueller to finish", Mr Graham added.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, said last Thursday that Mr Barr had told her he would not disrupt the probe, according to media reports. But The Washington Times quoted her as saying: "I don't take to the bank anything unless it is in the public sector and everyone can hear, and it's on the record."

Mr Trump nominated Mr Barr in December, a month after sacking Mr Jeff Sessions, who irked the President by recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe, which Mr Trump labels a "witch hunt".

Mr Barr has a record of endorsing strong executive powers, which could play into high-stakes legal battles on everything from immigration policy, to war powers, to whether the president can be required to provide testimony or release privileged documents in the Russia investigation.

He expressed support in May 2017 when Mr Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, which has led Mr Mueller to allegations that Mr Trump obstructed justice.

He has also echoed Mr Trump's own claims that Mr Mueller's team is packed with investigators allied with the Democratic Party.

Mr Barr himself, though, is a strong Republican supporter. Over the past two decades he and his wife donated nearly US$800,000 (S$1.08 million) to Republican candidates and groups, according to The Washington Post.

Last year, he submitted an unsolicited legal criticism of the Mueller probe to the Justice Department, and reportedly to the White House.

It argued that Mr Trump's presidential prerogatives are protection against any obstruction allegation in the Comey firing.

The memo, in particular, has focused the opposition to Mr Barr's nomination.

Mr Barr is "fatally conflicted... when it comes to the special counsel", Mr Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, said, calling for Mr Trump to withdraw the nomination.

The biggest concern is what Mr Barr will do with the report that Mr Mueller is expected to prepare on his findings.

According to The Washington Post, the President's lawyers are already planning to use executive privilege to stifle material that could be damaging to Mr Trump or support an impeachment effort by Democrats.

Mr Graham said Mr Barr indicated he would be "erring on the side of transparency".