Editor’s Note: This story has been updated throughout.
President Donald Trump’s forthcoming attorney general nominee didn’t back Trump in 2016 but did endorse his view that the Justice Department should have investigated Hillary Clinton more.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday morning he intends to nominate William Barr to be attorney general, replacing acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker who assumed the position after Trump ousted Jeff Sessions as the Justice Department’s leader last month.
If confirmed by the Senate, Barr would return to running the Justice Department after serving as as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under George H.W. Bush. Barr is a longtime Washington power lawyer and is currently counsel at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm.
As the next attorney general, Barr would oversee policy development on hot-button issues such as criminal justice reform and immigration, and would have supervision over the intensifying special counsel probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani—who was reportedly also under consideration to replace Sessions earlier this year—all but endorsed Barr on Thursday afternoon, telling The Daily Beast that Barr is a “strong choice.” Giuliani said he knows and likes Barr; in late 2015, their names appear side-by-side in a signed letter to Senate leaders denouncing sentencing reform legislation.
Despite his extensive experience and powerful allies, Barr’s past comments on contentious legal issues may complicate a potential confirmation effort.
Barr has said publicly that the DOJ should have done more to investigate Hillary Clinton, telling The New York Times in November 2017 that there was nothing “inherently wrong” about the president calling for an investigation into Clinton.
“Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation,” Barr said, adding that there was a basis to investigate Clinton for Uranium One.
“To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.
“I don’t think all this stuff about throwing [Clinton] in jail or jumping to the conclusion that she should be prosecuted is appropriate,” Barr told The Washington Post last year, “but I do think that there are things that should be investigated that haven’t been investigated.”
Barr also defended then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reveal to Congress just days before the 2016 election that the FBI had re-opened its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein criticized the decision, which the Clinton team blamed in part for her defeat.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), poised to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress, told The Daily Beast that Barr would be easy to confirm.
“I think he’d be an outstanding choice and is highly capable and highly respected, and should be easily confirmable. I think he’d be a good leader for the DOJ and someone President Trump could be proud of,” Graham said “However, I know the president has many good choices and I will do everything I can to support his nominee if I’m chairman of the Judiciary Committee. And the sooner we can start the process, the better.”
“I think the president really couldn’t do better,” he added.
Graham’s colleague on the committee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), said he will seek Barr’s word not to interfere with the Mueller investigation.
“I want to scrutinize more of his record and see what he says when he’s asked these questions about protecting the special counsel and the independence of the DOJ. I know enough to form an initial opinion of some skepticism but I want to determine how steadfastly he will protect the integrity and independence of the special counsel and DOJ.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) was scathing in his opinion of Barr.
“Donald Trump is nominating a man whose writings endorse the antidemocratic notion that the president is effectively royalty, unaccountable to laws, the Constitution, or constraint by Congress,” Wyden said in a statement, going on to criticize Barr’s positions on firing Comey, investigating Clinton, and his support of pardons in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s and early ’90s. “These views would be unacceptable under normal circumstances; when combined with Donald Trump’s constant attempts to end-run the law, they are potentially disastrous.”
Wyden said he has questions about Barr’s selection.
“On top of his troubling history, Barr must answer questions about whether Donald Trump demanded his loyalty, or extracted promises about constraining Robert Mueller’s investigation as a condition of being nominated. A failure to fully answer those questions will be disqualifying.”
A former intelligence official and Washington legal insider cast Barr as in the mainstream:
“He is more a Rosenstein than a Whitaker. He will likely be a steadier hand than Sessions was. I don’t think he will view the career people at the department at the enemy. I think he will listen to them and work with them.”
A key challenge for the next attorney general will be handling congressional efforts to investigate the White House. With Democrats poised to fire off a battery of subpoenas, legal battles over executive privilege seem all but inevitable. And in any ensuing litigation, the Justice Department will represent the White House. David Rivkin, a constitutional attorney who served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, said Barr is poised to grapple with Democrats.
“The most important question is, given the fact that the next two years would undoubtedly envision an effort by the Democrats to completely destroy this administration, with numerous investigations not only of the president but every single member of the Trump administration, who would be the attorney general who’s in the best position to resist it in a politically and constitutionally viable fashion?” Rivkin said. “And I think Bill Barr would be your man. He knows how to do it.”
Mueller ran the DOJ’s Criminal Division when Barr was attorney general. And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has invoked Barr to defend the special counsel’s installation. In a fight with Senate Judiciary, Rosenstein cited Barr’s selection of special counsels to justify the choice of Mueller. In another fight with House Judiciary over the Comey memos, Rosenstein cited a Barr memo about why DOJ needs to aggressively exert executive privilege.
Barr is a conservative Republican known for a Reagan-esque tone and worldview. Those who know him say Barr has a quirky but even-keeled personality and gets along with almost everyone he works with.
“He’s a great American, the antithesis of a political hack,” said Gary Byler, a lawyer from Virginia Beach who worked with Barr during the Reagan years “He’s a good enough attorney to have had great options all along his career path. He would be a great choice.”
Originally from New York, Barr worked in the CIA and then as a litigator at the firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts and Trowbridge. He started his political career in the Reagan White House before moving on to work for the George H. W. Bush administration. He served as deputy attorney general before being nominated to the top post in 1991. After leaving the government, Barr went on to work in corporate America, including as a general counsel for Verizon Communications.
During his time working as the deputy assistant director for legal policy in the Office of Policy Development under Reagan, Barr was known around the executive office building as someone got along with everyone and loved to play the bagpipes.
“He’s known for having a very dry sense of humor and unless you realize that, you might do a double take until you realize he’s joking with you,” said Gary Bauer, who has known Barr since he began working in the Reagan administration. “He’s a really good, nice guy the kind of guy that most people would enjoy spending time around.”
He often coordinated with cabinet secretaries and members of the National Security Council, according to those who worked with him.
“He was not an ideologue. He wanted the right answer,” said Doug Bandow, a former colleague. “He was interested in what the law was. He is easy to talk to and soft-spoken and somebody who is easy to work with. That was appreciated.”
Barr, a generous Republican donor in the past, backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP primary, giving him and the super PAC supporting him tens of thousands of dollars, according to federal election records.
The president's interest in Barr has spiked in recent weeks. Two close Trump associates say that the president has privately polled them for their thoughts on Barr lately.
At Main Justice, officials are in wait-and-see mode.
“I like Barr,” said one department official. “Doubt it will happen. It would make too much sense.”