Trump's pick for attorney general faces questions on Russia probe

WASHINGTON, Jan 15 - President Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. attorney general, William Barr, faced questions from senators on Tuesday about his past criticism of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian election meddling.
As Barr's Senate confirmation hearing got underway, lawmakers sought assurances that he will protect Mueller's inquiry - a frequent target for criticism by Trump and his allies - from political attack.
Barr, who was attorney general under Republican President George H.W. Bush in the 1990s, testified under oath that if he becomes the nation's top law enforcement officer, he will allow Mueller to complete the probe.
"On my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work," Barr said in a prepared statement at the start of his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said the findings from the Mueller inquiry should become public.
Barr will have to square that promise with an unsolicited, 19-page memo he wrote last year that called Mueller's probe "fatally misconceived" for examining whether 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," Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee's top Democrat, said as the hearing began.
The Mueller probe, which has been a cloud over the 2-year-old Trump presidency, is focused on Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favor, any possible collusion between Moscow and Trump's campaign and any subsequent obstruction of justice that followed.
Trump, who denies any collusion, frequently criticizes the probe as a "witch hunt." Russia has denied U.S. intelligence agencies' findings that it interfered in the 2016 election.
In his two-day confirmation hearing, Barr was also expected to face questions about his views on prison sentencing, antitrust enforcement and other issues he would face as head of the Justice Department. But the Mueller probe will likely dominate the committee's discussion.
Barr's nomination is expected to win approval in the Senate, where he has broad support among Republicans who control the chamber. Barr could also benefit from the fact that some Democrats view him as a better option the man who took over the job after Trump forced out Jeff Sessions last year, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.
Barr said his memo from last year did not question the legitimacy of the Mueller probe as a whole, but only expressed concerns that the special counsel might be improperly interpreting a law governing obstruction of justice.
The memo did not "argue, as some have erroneously suggested, that a president can never obstruct justice," Barr said.
Mueller has secured indictments against or guilty pleas from 33 people and three Russian companies, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
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 Trump's personal business practices and his presidency.
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