ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In a Senate hearing room today, attorney general nominee William Barr has been walking a fine line. Barr is pledging to protect the Justice Department, but he also says the president has sweeping constitutional authority. NPR national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following these confirmation hearings and joins us now to talk about them. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: OK. He has been nominated to lead the Justice Department at a time when the president is attacking it. So how did Barr address that tension today?
JOHNSON: Well, Bill Barr said he has a very high opinion of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. He says he has no reason to doubt that the Russians attempted to interfere in our elections. And he says he doesn't believe that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would be conducting a witch hunt. In fact, Barr says he would quit rather than fire Mueller if there were no good cause to get rid of him. And as one of Mueller's friends for 30 years, Barr says it's unimaginable that Mueller would do anything to prompt a firing.
SHAPIRO: Senate Democrats went into this hearing wanting Barr to firmly commit to protecting the Russia investigation. Did they get that commitment?
JOHNSON: Not a firm one, Ari. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, was pressing Bill Barr a lot about what people will learn in the end about the Russia probe.
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DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Will you commit to making any report Mueller produces at the conclusion of his investigation available to Congress and to the public?
WILLIAM BARR: As I said in my statement, I am going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations.
JOHNSON: Now, Bill Barr talked about wanting transparency, but he also said that he as the attorney general will make the ultimate call about what becomes public. And later on, Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said, just asking us to trust you is not enough. She said, this president will do anything to protect himself. And Mr. Barr was kind of tough in his response. He said, I'm not going to surrender the responsibility of the attorney general to get this title.
SHAPIRO: We know that Barr has had some contact with lawyers involved in the investigation. Did we learn anything new today about his interactions with the White House?
JOHNSON: We did. Barr told lawmakers he actually met with President Trump a while ago. And the president seemed to want Barr to join his legal defense team. Barr politely declined. He said he didn't want to stick his head in a meat grinder.
JOHNSON: Barr also said he discussed some legal theories with attorneys for the president, the vice president and with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Barr said he didn't recall learning anything of substance, anything confidential about the probe.
SHAPIRO: From the beginning of this investigation, the issue of recusals has been a very big deal. What did Barr say about recusals today?
JOHNSON: He said he thinks Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, probably did the right thing to recuse himself. And Democrats pressed Barr to step aside too, given his contacts with lawyers involved in this investigation and a memo he wrote criticizing the investigation. But here, again, Barr would not commit. He says he will ask career ethics officials at Justice to evaluate the question, but he won't necessarily do what they advise. He also said the president is not above the law. The president can't, for example, offer pardons to people who promise not to incriminate him.
SHAPIRO: Taking a step back, there is one question about Bill Barr that people on both sides of the aisle have, which is why would he come back to lead the Justice Department after 27 years to be attorney general again?
JOHNSON: An excellent question. Barr basically says because he loves the Justice Department as an institution. He says he's 68 years old, and he has nothing to lose.
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BARR: If you take this job, you have to be ready to make decisions and spend all your political capital and have no future because you have to have that freedom of action. And I feel I'm in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences.
JOHNSON: And, Ari, so far nothing has emerged to block Barr's path to confirmation.
SHAPIRO: NPR national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.