How much of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s highly-anticipated report into Russian interference in the 2016 election will be seen by Congressional lawmakers and the public Thursday largely depends on one man — William Barr.
The attorney general under Donald Trump has vowed to release the report this week with redactions that fall under four colour-coded classifications: classified information, grand jury information, information pertaining to ongoing investigations and information that may infringe on the privacy of “peripheral third parties.”
Mr Barr, who was confirmed earlier this year after being appointed to lead the Justice Department under Mr Trump, stopped short of vowing to release the full findings of the special counsel during his Congressional hearings.
He released a statement to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees prior to his testimony confirming he received the report. “I am reviewing the report and anticipate that I may be in a position to advise you of the special counsel’s principal conclusions as soon as this weekend,” the attorney general wrote.
The Senate voted 54-45 to confirm Mr Barr, mostly along party lines in February. Mr Barr, who previously served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993, succeeded Jeff Sessions after the former head of the Justice Department and Mr Trump became entrenched in a public feud over Mr Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe.
Democrats, who largely voted against Mr Barr, said they were concerned about his non-committal stance on making Mr Mueller’s report public.
Mr Barr promised to be as transparent as possible, but said he takes seriously the Justice Department regulations that dictate the report should be treated as confidential.
Opponents of Mr Barr also pointed to a memo he wrote to Justice officials before his nomination. In it, he criticised the Russia investigation for the way it was presumably looking into whether Mr Trump had obstructed justice.
Mr Barr wrote that the president could not have obstructed justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey since it was an action the president was constitutionally entitled to take.
That view has alarmed Democrats, especially since the obstruction inquiry has been central to Mr Mueller’s investigation.
Mr Barr vowed that he would not “be bullied,” said Mr Mueller’s investigation is not a witch hunt and agreed that Mr Sessions was right to recuse himself from the probe. He said he was a friend of Mr Mueller’s and repeatedly sought to assuage concerns that he might disturb or upend the investigation as it reaches its final stages.
When the president nominated Mr Barr, he called him “a terrific man” and “one of the most respected jurists in the country.”
“I think he will serve with great distinction,” Mr Trump said.
The position catapults him from Justice Department outsider free to theorise and speculate on the special counsel’s investigation, to the man at the centre of the legal and political firestorm that will accompany its conclusion.
Friends say Mr Barr is accustomed to pressure-cooker situations by virtue of his experience as attorney general under President George HW Bush and other senior Justice Department jobs.
He oversaw the department’s response when Los Angeles erupted in riots after the Rodney King verdict and when Cuban inmates took hostages at a federal prison in Alabama. He blessed Bush administration pardons in the Iran-Contra scandal and offered legal advice on the White House’s ability to invade Panama.
Lawmakers in both parties said a permanent replacement for Mr Sessions was urgently needed when Mr Barr was nominated by the president.
“All I can say is if America ever needed a steady hand at the Department of Justice, it is now,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor in February. “[Matthew] Whitaker has done a good job as interim attorney general, but we are looking for a new person to bring stability, improve morale, and be a steady hand and mature leadership at a time when our country is very much divided.”
Mr Graham said Mr Barr stood out “head and shoulders” above others who could have been nominated.
“To the American people, you can go to bed here soon knowing that the Department of Justice is in good hands,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report