Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 11, 2018
President Trump has nominated William Barr, a prominent Republican lawyer and former attorney general under George H.W. Bush, to lead the Justice Department. He faces a Senate confirmation hearing that will ask 50 times in different ways whether he will let Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III finish his work and how he feels about charges against sitting presidents.
If confirmed, Barr would replace Matthew Whitaker, a poorly qualified candidate who was plugged in as acting attorney general after Jeff Sessions resigned in November under pressure from the White House.
Unlike many other appointments, Barr reflects a background that is totally legally qualified. From his public statements, Barr just holds opinions that are objectionable — including reopening investigation of Hillary Clinton about already dismissed issues like inviting donations to the Clinton Foundation in return for support of a uranium company sale, an act of approval that spanned several departments outside of State.
As a private corporate lawyer in the antitrust debate over Time Warner’s merger with AT&T, he also has found himself attacking the very agency he now will head, if confirmed.
Barr, attorney general from 1991 to 1993, would take over a department that has come under frequent attack by the president for having too many anti-Trump employees.
Unlike many of his appointments, this one seems right on point for Trump. Barr is experienced, respectful of the Justice Department and the FBI, and mostly in agreement with the president’s most conservative views. And, unless he has a Brett Kavanaugh moment, he seems early on to be likely to make it through confirmation in a Senate with a solid Republican majority that seems eager to want a conservative without the baggage that former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions carried.
One again, however, Barr will face a question of recusal from the special counsel matter because he has made public statements about the investigation.
As NPR reported, it is unclear how Barr views that investigation. But he 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.”
The Washington Post notedthat Barr’s past commentary has played down the severity of the allegations against Trump — on both the collusion and obstruction-of-justice fronts — and he also has suggested the Clintons should be in more trouble. In fact, in November 2017, Barr told the New York Times that there was actually more basis to investigate Hillary Clinton for the Uranium One deal than there is to investigate Trump for potential collusion with Russia. He went so far as to say the Justice Department was wrong to give Clinton a pass.
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.
Barr, 68, has extensive experience in government, particularly 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. After leaving government, Barr held several senior executive positions, including with GTE Corporation and Verizon Communications.
His daughter, Mary Daly, currently serves as the Justice Department’s leader in coordinating its response to the opioid crisis.
Over the past two years, Barr has expressed agreement with some of Trump’s views on the Russia investigation. He has questioned whether special counsel Robert Mueller’s team of investigators is plagued by political bias.
A New Yorker by birth, Barr earned two degrees from Columbia and attended the George Washington University Law School. He worked for the CIA, was a law clerk, served as a domestic policy staffer in the Ronald Reagan White House. He was also in private practice for nine years with the Washington law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge. During 1989, at the beginning of his administration, President George H. W. Bush appointed Barr Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, an office which functions as the legal advisor for the President and executive agencies.
Barr was known as a strong defender of Presidential power and wrote advisory opinions justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega, and a controversial opinion that the F.B.I. could enter onto foreign soil without the consent of the host government to apprehend fugitives wanted by the United States government for terrorism or drug-trafficking. In May,1990, Barr was appointed Deputy Attorney General, the official responsible for day-to-day management of the Department. According to media reports, Barr was generally praised for his professional management of the Department, moving to become Acting Attorney General in 1991.
During his confirmation hearing, Barr was asked whether he thought a constitutional right to privacy included the right to an abortion. Barr responded that he believed the constitution was not originally intended to create a right to abortion; that Roe v. Wade was thus wrongly decided; and that abortion should be a “legitimate issue for state legislators.”
If the question of whether Barr is “qualified,” as opposed to Whitaker, who lacks almost any version of qualification, Barr should be a slam dunk for Trump.