President Trump’s pick for attorney general told a key senator Wednesday that the special counsel’s investigation into 2016 campaign shenanigans is not a “witch hunt,” as he sought to firm up support ahead of his confirmation hearing.
Sen. Lindsey Graham said William P. Barr also assured him special counsel Robert Mueller will be allowed to finish his job and recounted a 20-year personal relationship with Mr. Mueller.
“I asked him if he thinks Mr. Mueller is on a witch hunt and he said, ‘No.’ I asked him if he thought Mr. Mueller would be fair to the president and the country as a whole, and he said, ‘Yes,’” said Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican and incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The revelation came hours after ABC News reported Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein plans to step down once a new attorney general is in place.
Mr. Rosenstein had initiated the special counsel’s probe, picked Mr. Mueller and oversaw the investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.
Mr. Barr would assume oversight if he wins confirmation, and Democratic senators signaled Wednesday they plan to make his handling of the special counsel their chief focus during next week’s confirmation hearings.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called Mr. Barr “fatally conflicted” when it comes to Mr. Mueller, pointing to a memo the nominee had written earlier questioning legal theories that Mr. Mueller was pursuing.
“The Senate, starting with the Judiciary Committee, should subject Mr. Barr’s views to the strictest of scrutiny next week — and I still believe, after the revelations about Mr. Barr’s unsolicited memo, President Trump ought to withdraw this nomination,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Mr. Graham, who met with Mr. Barr for 20 minutes Wednesday, sought to combat those sentiments.
“I can assure you he has a very high opinion of Mr. Mueller and he is committed to letting Mr. Mueller finish his job,” the GOP chairman said.
Mr. Barr also had kind words for Mr. Rosenstein, telling reporters he’d done an “excellent” job as the deputy.
Those comments came after a meeting with Sen. Ben Sasse.
Mr. Barr made a round of courtesy visits with GOP senators Wednesday. Democrats said he has yet to meet with them, and they’re eager to pepper him with questions about his past writings and positions.
“I’m hoping he’ll come see me. I’ve made myself available,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who supported Mr. Barr during his 1991 confirmation to become attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, said he’s also looking for a one-on-one meeting.
The Democrats indicated they intend to hammer Mr. Barr on whether he will protect the Mueller from interference by the White House.
In June, Mr. Barr sent a 19-page memo to Justice Department officials arguing that Mueller’s focus on whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice is “fatally misconceived.”
“I am very concerned about his disparaging comments about the special counsel,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat. “I want an ironclad specific commitment that he will support the special counsel.”
Democrats also said they want to prod Mr. Barr on other topics ranging the new criminal justice reform law to his views on consent decrees between the Justice Department and local governments over matters such as police conduct.
“He has been rather outspoken for a long time against the criminal justice reform bill which passed and he is required to implement as attorney general,” Mr. Durbin said.
Mr. Blumenthal said Mr. Barr’s approach to Obamacare litigation is at the top of his list of questions.
A federal judge last month ruled the bulk of the Affordable Care Act is now unconstitutional after Congress zeroed out the tax penalty.
“I want to know if he’ll defend the United States of America when it’s sued on the Affordable Care Act,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “He has to tell me, ‘I’ll defend the laws of the United States.’ He has a duty to defend laws even when he doesn’t like them.”