The nominee also appeared to emphasize a softer vision of presidential power than the unusually expansive view he has largely advanced throughout his career — for example, previously portraying the president instead of the attorney general as the nation’s top law-enforcement official, who wields unfettered power to “start or stop a law enforcement proceeding.”
His philosophy on executive authority has raised the question of whether his permissive theories would unleash Mr. Trump. But in several ways on Tuesday, Mr. Barr appeared to walk back or qualify some of his earlier writings, putting greater emphasis on the Justice Department’s independence and legal limits on the presidency.
For example, Mr. Barr said that if a president directed the Justice Department to close an investigation to protect himself or his family, that would violate the Constitution. And asked by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, whether a president could pardon someone in exchange for a promise not to incriminate him, Mr. Barr said, “That would be a crime.”
He also pledged to seek the advice of ethics lawyers in the Justice Department about whether he should recuse himself from overseeing the Russia inquiry, while stopping short of committing to accepting their recommendation. Late last year, Justice Department ethics officials recommended to Mr. Whitaker that he recuse from overseeing that investigation, but Mr. Whitaker declined to do so.
The fate of Mr. Mueller’s findings — an expected report — was a recurring topic. Mr. Barr said that Mr. Mueller’s report to the attorney general would be “confidential,” but that the attorney general would then produce his own report to Congress based on that material. He said that he intended to be as transparent as possible given grand-jury secrecy rules, but that he would not let the White House edit or change it, as the president’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani had suggested might occur.
“That will not happen,” Mr. Barr said.
And Mr. Barr repeatedly said Mr. Mueller, whom he portrayed as a longtime friend, must be permitted to resolve the investigation.
“It is in the best interest of everyone — the president, Congress and, most importantly, the American people — that this matter be resolved by allowing the special counsel to complete his work,” Mr. Barr said. He added: “I will follow the special counsel regulations scrupulously and in good faith, and on my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish.”