Trump Picks William Barr, Attorney General Under H.W. Bush, To Return To DOJ Helm

Dec 7, 2018
Originally published on December 10, 2018 5:45 pm

Updated at 1:33 p.m. ET

President Trump said Friday that he intends to nominate William Barr, a prominent Republican lawyer and former attorney general, to return and lead the Justice Department.

Barr, who served as George H.W. Bush's attorney general from 1991 to 1993, holds sweeping views of executive power and hard-line positions on criminal justice issues.

"He was my first choice from Day 1," Trump told reporters outside the White House. "I think he will serve with great distinction."

Barr would take over a department that has come under frequent attack by the president. Trump has repeatedly lashed out at the DOJ and the FBI, accusing them of harboring anti-Trump elements who seek to torpedo his administration.

If confirmed, Barr would replace Matthew Whitaker, who stepped in as acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions resigned in November under pressure from the White House.

The largest source of friction in Sessions' relationship with Trump was his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — a move that Trump viewed as a betrayal.

Depending on how long his Senate confirmation takes, Barr would likely oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian intervention in the 2016 election.

Long history with Mueller

During Barr's first stint as attorney general, Mueller served as the head of the department's criminal division, which pursued several high-profile investigations at the time.

It is unclear how Barr views Mueller's ongoing Russia investigation.

But Barr has expressed concerns about political donations made by members of Mueller's team. In 2017, he told The Washington Post that "prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party."

Barr added that he "would have liked to see him have more balance on this group."

He also has suggested that Trump's calls for the Justice Department to investigate his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, weren't improper.

"There's nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation," Barr told The New York Times. "Although an investigation shouldn't be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation."

He went on to say that a 2010 uranium deal that was approved when Clinton was secretary of state merits further investigation.

President Trump announces that he is nominating William Barr, attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, as his new attorney general.
Evan Vucci / AP

"To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility," Barr said.

Trump, meanwhile, has kept up his attacks on Mueller and the Justice Department. He said on Twitter on Friday, for example, that his legal team is already preparing a rebuttal to the report that Trump expects from the special counsel's office.

Justice Department veteran

Barr, 68, has extensive experience in government, particularly in the upper echelons of the Justice Department.

In addition to his stint as attorney general, he also served as deputy attorney general from 1990 to 1991, and as assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel for two years before that.

Trump hailed Barr's track record in a tweet after his announcement at the White House.

That experience also is viewed as a plus by Republicans, many of whom have welcomed Barr's nomination.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a key Trump ally and top member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will consider Barr's nomination, called Barr a "highly capable, highly respected pick."

Other supporters cited Barr's past experience at the Justice Department, suggesting his chances appear good to be confirmed by the Senate.

"Bill Barr is exceptionally well-qualified," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in a statement. "He understands the job and will have the confidence of the Congress as well as the president."

Democrats, meanwhile, acknowledged Barr's pedigree but said they think his lengthy track record requires further scrutiny.

"Barr is an experienced and able lawyer," said Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I will have questions about his record and positions on pressing issues facing the Department of Justice, particularly his willingness to defend the department's investigations — including Bob Mueller's — now looking at the Trumps and Trump cronies."

One particular aspect of Barr's past that Democrats are likely to delve into in light of the ongoing Russia investigation is his support for the pardons that President George H.W. Bush granted to half a dozen former officials caught up in the Iran-Contra investigation.

The pardons canceled out one conviction, three guilty pleas and two pending cases that were part of the work of independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.

Civil rights advocates worry

Barr's nomination also has been met with concern by civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates, who point to his hard-line views dating back to the early 1990s.

"William Barr's record suggests he will follow Jeff Sessions' legacy of hostility to civil rights and civil liberties," said Faiz Shakir, the American Civil Liberties Union national political director. "Barr must commit to defending the rule of law and civil rights, not serving as a political arm of Trump's anti-constitutional agenda."

In 1992, for example, Barr penned a note attached to a Justice Department document titled: "The Case for More Incarceration."

In his note, Barr writes that "there is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets."

After leaving government, Barr returned to the private sector, where he held several senior executive positions, including with GTE Corporation and Verizon Communications.

His daughter, Mary Daly, currently leads the Justice Department response to the opioid crisis.

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President Trump is closing out the week with a flurry of staff appointments - a new U.N. ambassador, a new chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a new attorney general. His choice for that last post? A prominent Republican lawyer who has held the job once before in the administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush. William Barr served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He was my first choice from day one, respected by Republicans and respected by Democrats.

KELLY: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here to tell us more. Hey, Ryan.


KELLY: So what else do we need to know about William Barr, other than that he was really, really young the first time around that he did this?

LUCAS: (Laughter) Well, he's a well-respected, establishment Republican lawyer. He has a lengthy resume of government service. A lot of that dates back several decades. You mentioned of course that he was attorney general for George H.W. Bush. He served as deputy attorney general before that and also led the - DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel. So he knows the Justice Department. He knows how it works. People who worked with him there say he has deep respect for the institution.

Now, if he's confirmed as Trump's attorney general, Barr will take over from Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker has been leading the DOJ on an acting basis, temporary basis, since Jeff Sessions resigned last month. And that of course was under pressure from the White House.

KELLY: And I should explain my really young comment. Barr is 68 now, which put him in his early 40s when he first held this job, which...

LUCAS: That's right.

KELLY: ...Since I'm now 47, I'm going to qualify that as really, really young.

LUCAS: (Laughter).

KELLY: To get confirmed for this job, he is of course going to need to be confirmed by the Senate. How is his nomination being received on Capitol Hill?

LUCAS: Well, for Republicans, this is a solid, reassuring choice. They like Barr's experience. They view that as a major asset. Take for example Senator Lindsey Graham. He's a Trump ally, leading member of the Judiciary Committee, which of course will handle Barr's confirmation. So Graham called Barr's selection outstanding. He says Barr is highly capable, calls him highly respected.

And he says that he'll provide new and much-needed leadership at the Justice Department. That of course appeared to be a nod to the turmoil that surrounded the department during Jeff Sessions' tenure as Trump's first attorney general. Trump, of course, routinely criticized Sessions, as well as the Justice Department itself.

KELLY: Not a surprise to hear that Republicans like Lindsey Graham are on board with this. What about Democrats?

LUCAS: Democrats acknowledge that Barr has experience, of course, running the department. They acknowledge his legal capabilities as well. But there are a number of things that they have concerns about. Chief among them is how Barr views the special counsel's Russia investigation. Barr has voiced...

KELLY: Which he would be overseeing.

LUCAS: Yes, as of now, if he's confirmed. Barr has voiced concerns publicly about political donations made by Mueller's team. He's also suggested that Trump's calls for the department to investigate Hillary Clinton were not improper. Those are sources of concerns for Democrats. He's also expressed some very sweeping views of presidential power. He did that back in the 1990s. That's a cause for concern as well. Democrats are looking for some guarantees from Barr. The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, wants him to commit under oath that he will not impede the Russia investigation and that he will make Mueller's final report available to Congress and to the public.

KELLY: And briefly, Ryan, he has a long record in Washington. Is that going to hurt or help him in the confirmation process?

LUCAS: His nomination is getting some pushback from the civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates. But right now, Republicans appear to be on board. And they appear to be able to kind of push this across the line.

KELLY: All right. NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.