It was William Barr’s confirmation hearing. But it was Robert Mueller’s affirmation hearing.

President Trump nominated Barr to be his new attorney general to shield him from Mueller’s rigged witch hunt. But Barr spent much of his seven-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday lavishing praise on the tormentor of his future boss. And Republicans, for the most part, didn’t defend Trump – and occasionally joined in the Mueller veneration.

None of this guarantees that Mueller will be able to complete his work unhindered, or that Americans will ever know what work he did. Ominously, Barr, while promising “as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” suggested he might try to bury Mueller’s report by treating it as confidential and releasing only “certain information” himself.

Still, Mueller’s de facto affirmation hearing should be of concern to Trump as the president tries to discredit whatever the special prosecutor comes up with in the coming weeks or months. Just about everybody but Trump regards Mueller as an upstanding man doing honest work. Even Trump’s potential new attorney general.

Barr described declining an earlier request to join Trump’s legal defense team, saying, “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.” He recalled telling Trump at the time that “Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.”

Regarding his “good friend” of three decades, Barr vowed: “On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work.” If ordered to fire Mueller without cause, he said, “I would not carry out that instruction.”

And what if Trump’s lawyers attempt to edit the Mueller report, as has been threatened? “That will not happen.” Barr warned that the president’s interference in cases involving himself and his associates could be unconstitutional or criminal.

Barr’s appearance seemed to have a calming effect on the panel so recently shredded by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. It was as if the appearance of the 68-year-old Barr, recommended by the same panel in 1991 to serve the same role in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, had transported the lawmakers to a kinder, gentler time. Democrats and Republicans took turns talking about Barr’s grandson.

Maybe the recent bombshell reports about Trump’s Russia ties had cowed the Republicans. Whatever the cause, they were disinclined to defend Trump.

And the chairman, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., usually a Trump loyalist, seemed to be trolling the president.

“Do you believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt against anybody?” Graham asked, invoking the president’s favorite phrase.

“I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” Barr replied.

Asked whether then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was right to recuse himself from the Russia investigation – a source of Trump’s fury – Barr replied: “I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself.”

“I agree,” Graham added.

Trump, no doubt encouraged by Barr’s earlier Mueller memo, hopes his new attorney general will protect him. And it is possible Barr wasn’t being honest in his professed respect for Mueller and for transparency.

But why would Barr come out of retirement, instead of spending “cherished time” with grandchildren, to take a job he already had – only to become a villain for covering up Mueller’s findings?

“You seem like a rational person,” Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told Barr. “Why do you want this job?” Indeed, he’s joining a president famous for chewing up once-respected figures and sending them packing. Trump reportedly referred to Sessions as “Mr. Magoo” and “mentally retarded” and demeaned him publicly.

Barr’s answer to Durbin should have sent chills down the presidential spine.

The rule of law, Barr said, “is the heartbeat of this country,” and he vowed to “protect the independence and the reputation of the department.” He added, “I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.”

Barr spent decades building his reputation. Why would he throw it away now by becoming the guy who buried the Mueller report?

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. He can be contacted at:

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