By David Shepardson and Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top Democrats in the U.S. Senate are sounding alarms about the special counsel’s investigation into possible Russia election meddling, saying President Donald Trump’s pick for the next attorney general, William Barr, could derail the probe.
They are also concerned by reports that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker does not have to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, even though he repeatedly criticized it.
Whoever takes the job will supervise a major investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The investigation already has ensnared Trump’s former campaign manager, former personal lawyer, and former national security adviser. Trump, who has denied wrongdoing, has labelled it a “witch hunt,” raising concerns he may attempt to shut the investigation down.
Russia has denied interference.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said on Thursday Barr is disqualified from the post by his recent memo blasting any potential attempts by Mueller to look into possible obstruction from Trump.
“The president must immediately reconsider and find another nominee who is free of conflicts and will carry out the duties of the office impartially,” Schumer said.
Trump said earlier this month he would nominate Barr, who was U.S. attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, to return to the position.
According to media reports, Barr gave the memo, which was provided to lawmakers late on Wednesday, to the White House as well as Justice Department officials before his name was floated for the job.
“We need answers as to why William Barr proactively drafted a memo against Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter. “There’s no reason for a lawyer in private practice to do this unless he was attempting to curry favour with President Trump.”
The vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Democrat Mark Warner, on Twitter called for a bill to protect the investigation from political interference. He said legislation was urgently needed after Justice Department ethics officials reportedly told Whitaker he does not need to recuse himself from overseeing the probe.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been overseeing Mueller’s investigation, said on Thursday the Barr memo had not impacted the investigation and he had not shared confidential information with Barr.
“Bill Barr will be an outstanding attorney general when he is confirmed next year,” Rosenstein said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Trott)