Editorial: Remember Barr’s promises to let special counsel finish work

The former and likely future attorney general pledges to let Robert Mueller finish his investigation into the 2016 election.
Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General nominee William Barr testifies Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Published January 15
Updated January 16

William Barr is far from the ideal choice to become the nation’s next attorney general. To be kind, his views on criminal justice, immigration and other key issues are as dated as his experience as attorney general during the first Bush administration. But Barr assured the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday that he would allow special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 election. At this critical moment, that may be the best Americans can expect.

Regardless of Barr’s expansive views on executive power, his long experience and consistency could be a steadying influence in a period with an unstable, unreliable president coping with multiple investigations and a partial government shutdown he has brought on himself. Barr is headed toward Senate confirmation, and he could stabilize the Justice Department following the forced departure of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the seat-warming of unqualified acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

Barr sounded out of touch Tuesday on a number of issues such as anti-trust, intellectual property and privacy in a digital economy. But he sent the right message about seeing the special counsel’s investigation through and expressing his respect for Mueller. “Under the regulations, Bob Mueller could only be terminated for good cause and frankly it’s unimaginable to me that Bob would do anything that gave rise to good cause,” he said.

The legitimate concerns about Barr’s independence from Trump or other outside influences were generally answered. For example, he has doubted in an unsolicited memo to the Trump administration whether the president could be charged with obstruction of justice because he fired FBI Director James Comey or hinted he would pardon allies who cooperated with Mueller. Barr conceded he had no facts when he wrote the memo in 2018 and was primarily concerned about setting any precedent.

Other reasonable questions have been raised about Trump’s overture to Barr about becoming one of his lawyers and about a discussion he had earlier in the White House about the Mueller investigation. Barr said he had no interest in becoming Trump’s lawyer and that the other discussion was not of any substance. More important is that Barr has consistently supported the investigation, does not consider it a “witch hunt’’ as Trump does, and vows that Mueller can finish his work.

Going forward, Barr should agree to recuse himself from the Russian investigation if that is the recommendation from Justice Department ethics officials. He would not make that commitment Tuesday, and he did not commit to making the full Mueller report public. “My goal and intent is to get as much information out as I can,’’ Barr said.

That is not good enough. Americans deserve to see the full picture so they can make their own judgments about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign cooperated with a foreign power.

Barr, 68, emphasized that his age and experience give him the freedom to act independently and stand up to pressure from the president or anyone else. “It is in the best interest of everyone — the president, Congress, and most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work,’’ he said.

Agreed. Barr would not be the most enlightened attorney general. But he is expected to be confirmed, and his promise to remain independent and allow the special counsel’s investigation to proceed to its conclusion has to be good enough for now.

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