President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, told U.S. lawmakers in written comments released on Monday he would not take any steps to improperly fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller and said Trump has never discussed the substance of Mueller's Russia investigation with him.
In written comments to questions posed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr also said he had discussed with Justice Department officials the issue of recusing himself from oversight of Mueller's investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election. The committee is due to vote on Tuesday on whether to endorse Barr's nomination and send it to the full U.S. Senate for a confirmation vote.
"The President has not asked me my views about any aspect of the investigation, and he has not asked me about what I would do about anything in the investigation," Barr wrote in response to questions posed by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.
The Republican president has called Mueller's investigation a witch hunt, though Barr in his confirmation hearing this month said he would let the special counsel complete the probe and pledged to make as many details of Mueller's findings public as he can, once the work is completed.
Barr, who previously served as attorney general under Republican former President George H.W. Bush, has come under criticism from Democrats over a memo he sent to Justice Department and White House officials last year that called Mueller's investigation into whether Trump committed obstruction of justice "fatally misconceived."
If confirmed by the Senate, Barr would oversee Mueller's investigation into whether Trump's presidential campaign conspired with Russia. Trump has denied any such collusion. Russian has denied interfering in the election.
Barr also said during his hearing and in his written responses he has no plans to overhaul Justice Department regulations so Mueller could be fired at will. Under current rules, Mueller can be fired only for misconduct or other wrongdoing.
"I would not countenance changing the existing regulations for the purpose of removing Special Counsel Mueller without good cause," Barr wrote to the senators.
Some Democrats have questioned whether Barr should recuse himself from overseeing the investigation because of his memo.
Barr said in his written responses he has discussed recusal issues related to the memo with department officials, but has not done so with the White House. He did not give much insight into what department officials may have recommended related to a recusal or whether he would disclose any advice he receives.
"If confirmed, I will consult with the Department's career ethics officials, review the facts, and make a decision regarding my recusal from any matter in good faith," Barr wrote, adding that while he is unfamiliar with protocol for disclosing ethics advice to Congress he would be "as transparent as possible."
Democrats have raised concerns about whether Barr will adequately disclose to Congress all of the details of Mueller's inquiry, including any decisions not to charge certain people. Barr has signaled some details might remain under wraps.
In responses to questions from Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, Barr cited a Justice Department manual that he said "cautions prosecutors to be sensitive to the privacy and reputational interests of uncharged third parties."
"It is department policy and practice not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution," Barr added.
Such a response might pose more concerns for Democrats, particularly after Barr previously said he sees no reason to change a longstanding Justice Department legal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted.