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Congress Begins Consideration Of William Barr's Nomination As Next Attorney General

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Senators have a lot of questions for President Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department - questions about the Mueller investigation, independence from the White House and whether the president is above the law. Tomorrow, William Barr will have a chance to answer those questions in the first day of his confirmation hearing to be attorney general. According to excerpts of his opening statement, he'll say, I believe it is vitally important that the special counsel be allowed to complete his investigation, and I also believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel's work.

Barr has led the Justice Department before in the early '90s under the first President Bush. And his deputy at the time, George Terwilliger, joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Thank you, Ari. Nice to be with you.

SHAPIRO: You wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed endorsing Barr for attorney general, in which you said that some people saw you two as joined at the hip when you were both at the Justice Department. So how would you describe his approach to the job?

TERWILLIGER: His approach to the job as attorney general is much like his approach to the job of being a lawyer. He is a very principled, careful lawyer who believes that the rule of law should dictate the outcome of anything that comes before the department.

SHAPIRO: There is a long tradition of the attorney general working to preserve the Justice Department's independence from the White House. And at the same time, President Trump has made it clear that he believes the attorney general should answer to the president and, if necessary, protect the president. Where do you think Barr's understanding the job lies?

TERWILLIGER: Well, clearly Bill believes the attorney general is a subordinate, as the Constitution says the attorney general is, of the president. But he also believes that, for the sake of the integrity of the Justice Department, that its work is better freed of any political interference or undue influence. And, you know, we could probably spend the next hour talking about, you know, what that...

SHAPIRO: What that means in practice.

TERWILLIGER: ...Means in practice. That's right. But I think if you look at Bill's record when he was attorney general, in practice he maintained that level of independence.

SHAPIRO: You say Barr's record speaks to his approach to the job. Can you point us to an example of a time that he has protected the Justice Department from political influence?

TERWILLIGER: I don't recall a time in the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush where we worried about undue political influence. Really ever since Watergate, presidents have had more of a hands-off attitude about the Justice Department. People talk about the traditional independence of the Justice Department, and I'm all for that.

But if you look at as recent as President Kennedy, presidents had no compunction about telling the attorney generals what they ought to be doing and what their priorities ought to be. So there's kind of a fine line between improper interference and presidents letting their views be known.

SHAPIRO: Bill Barr has written one memo in particular that's gotten a lot of scrutiny about the Mueller investigation. And if I can paraphrase, he writes that a president can face obstruction of justice charges for directly altering an investigation, like witness tampering or interfering with evidence, but not, for example, for hiring and firing officials as part of his constitutional duties, like firing FBI Director James Comey. If Barr is confirmed as attorney general, do you think President Trump's future could hinge on that memo?

TERWILLIGER: No, I don't think so. First of all, I think Bill was right, but it's a very narrow analysis. And it's misunderstood in some respects. And I'm sure maybe tomorrow we'll get educated a little further.

SHAPIRO: It seems that everybody who takes a senior position in Trump's orbit, sooner or later, comes in for intense personal attacks from the president. Trump publicly called the last attorney general, Jeff Sessions, disloyal, weak, disgraceful. Given the way that Trump treats people close to him, why do you think Bill Barr wants this job?

TERWILLIGER: I think Bill agreed to take this job because he's a patriot, and he believes that, at this particular time, a steady hand committed to the rule of law was what was needed at the Justice Department. He cares about the department. And Bill is no shrinking violet. So I think he and the president will get along just fine.

SHAPIRO: George Terwilliger, former deputy attorney general who served with Bill Barr in the early '90s. Thanks for joining us today.

TERWILLIGER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.