WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump's nominee for United States attorney-general, William Barr, told lawmakers on Tuesday (Jan 15) he would protect a federal probe into Russian election meddling from political pressure, stressing that he would bring independence to the job and not shy away from breaking ranks with the administration.
"I will not be bullied into doing anything that I think is wrong - by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the President. I'm going to do what I think is right," Mr Barr said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr Barr is expected to win confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer, which would put him in charge of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election and any possible collusion between Moscow and Mr Trump's campaign.
"On my watch, Bob (Mr Mueller) will be allowed to complete his work," Mr Barr said.
Democrats worry that Mr Trump's administration may try to undercut the investigation, which has been a frequent target of the President and his allies.
Mr Barr, who was attorney-general under Republican president George H. W. Bush in the 1990s, said his primary loyalty would be to the rule of law, not Mr Trump. He said he did not seek out the job and was reluctant to accept when Mr Trump offered it to him.
Mr Trump frequently criticises the Mueller probe as a "witch hunt" and has denied any collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. Russia has denied US intelligence agencies' findings that it interfered in the 2016 election.
Mr Barr said he agreed with Mr Mueller's charge that Russian entities interfered in the election, or at least tried to do so. He said he described Mr Mueller, a longtime friend, as a "straight shooter" when Mr Trump asked about him.
"I don't believe Mr Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt," Mr Barr said.
Mr Mueller is due to submit a final report to the attorney-general, prompting concern from some Democrats that the Trump administration will try to quash his findings. Mr Barr said he would not let Mr Trump modify the report and would make public as many of Mr Mueller's findings as possible.
But Mr Barr faced tough questions from Democrats about an unsolicited, 19-page memo he wrote last year that called Mr Mueller's probe "fatally misconceived" for examining whether Mr Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI director James Comey in 2017.
"It does raise questions about your willingness to reach conclusions before knowing the facts, and whether you prejudge the Mueller investigation," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat.
Mr Barr said his memo did not question the legitimacy of the probe as a whole, but only expressed concerns that the special counsel might be improperly interpreting one aspect of the law.
"I think it was entirely proper," he said of the memo, saying it was not unusual for former Justice Department officials to share their views of legal matters. He said he had written a similar memo criticising the department's corruption case against Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, which ended in a mistrial in 2017.
Mr Barr's views of presidential power could be important, as prosecutors and Democrats in the House of Representatives, where they hold the majority, intensify investigations of Mr Trump's personal business practices and his presidency.
Mr Barr could benefit from the fact that some Democrats view him as a better option than the man who took over the job after Mr Trump forced out Mr Jeff Sessions last year, acting Attorney-General Matt Whitaker.
During his tenure as attorney-general, Mr Sessions faced repeated attacks from Mr Trump for recusing himself from oversight of the Russia probe after it emerged that he had met Russian officials while working with the Trump election campaign. Mr Barr said Mr Sessions "did the right thing" by recusing himself.
Mr Mueller has secured indictments against or guilty pleas from 33 people and three Russian companies, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.