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

16 hours ago
Originally published on December 7, 2018 6:23 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.

"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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


It has been a busy day for the special counsel's Russia investigation. This evening, documents in the case of President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen were filed in a New York federal court. The documents offer more information about the crimes the government says Cohen has committed. We also have new documents from the special counsel about the president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here in the studio to walk us through both these filings. Hey, Carrie.


CHANG: OK, let's start with Michael Cohen. A couple documents here from the government today describe in more detail about why Cohen is expecting to head to prison. Tell us what we're learning.

JOHNSON: There is a lot in these materials. First, federal prosecutors in Manhattan say Michael Cohen actually deserves a substantial prison sentence. They say that he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1, who happens to be the president...

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: ...In an ongoing campaign finance probe of payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Those are two women who allegedly had personal relationships with Donald Trump and receive payments in the course of the campaign. The prosecutors in New York also say Michael Cohen consulted with Donald Trump about meetings in Moscow, part of a highly lucrative Trump Tower Moscow deal that never came to fruition. Authorities also reveal that Cohen was approached as far back as 2015 by an unnamed Russian who was offering political synergy with Michael Cohen.

CHANG: Political synergy.


CHANG: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: Now, we got a second document shortly thereafter from the special counsel. It is very intriguing. The special counsel says Cohen met with them seven times, that he provided useful information on Russia matters that are core to their investigation. He got that information apparently through regular contact with company executives at the Trump Organization during the campaign and that Michael Cohen also talked with the special counsel about his contacts with people tied to the White House in 2017 and 2018 and that when he got questions from Congress about Russia, he circulated his responses to a whole bunch of people before he sent them. He now says those responses were false, so the question is, who got them, and were they encouraging him to lie?

CHANG: Right. Now, the president has already responded in his favorite way, Twitter, of course. What has President Trump said about all of this?

JOHNSON: You know, President Trump has been out with a couple of lines on Twitter. He said, totally clears the president - thank you. The White House - Sarah Sanders, press secretary, followed up with more detail later. Sanders said the government's filings in Michael Cohen's case tell us nothing of value that wasn't already known. Michael Cohen has repeatedly lied, and as the prosecution has pointed out in court, Michael Cohen is no hero.

CHANG: OK, we also received another document today, this one about Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Tell us what's in there.

JOHNSON: Ailsa, this is the story of a relationship gone bad.

CHANG: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: Remember that Paul Manafort...

CHANG: Oh, yes.

JOHNSON: ...Agreed to plead guilty in September and cooperate with the special counsel.


JOHNSON: It turns out he met with prosecutors 12 times. He actually testified twice before the grand jury. But authorities now say Paul Manafort lied and lied and lied again. He lied about his business associate who allegedly has ties to Russian intelligence. He lied about a wire transfer. And they say he also lied about another unspecified Justice Department investigation that's ongoing. And maybe most important, Paul Manafort, they say, lied about his contacts with administration officials, that Paul Manafort himself was in touch with a senior administration official as late as February 2018 and that he authorized somebody else on his behalf to be in touch with other administration officials as of May 26, 2018. The question is, what were they talking about?

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Remember.

CHANG: No details on the content of the communications.

JOHNSON: No details.


JOHNSON: No details, a lot still under seal on - in this case. But remember; Paul Manafort had been maybe expecting a presidential pardon. The question now...

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: ...Is were they discussing that? President Trump recently told reporters a pardon was not off the table for Paul Manafort, so we're going to be looking for more information about that moving forward.

CHANG: OK, so, you know, give me the big picture here. Do we know where these investigations are headed next based on what's happened today?

JOHNSON: Well, this - the ball is in the court of a couple of judges. Michael Cohen is going to be sentenced in New York later this month. Authorities say he - he's still working with the special counsel. And Paul Manafort won't be punished, won't be sentenced until early 2019, but we may have a hearing coming up about how exactly he lied and may have violated the plea deal. It's important to note as a matter of fairness that Paul Manafort says he believes he told the truth, and he believes he cooperated. So we may have a public hearing in court about whether or not he did all these lies that the special counsel says.

CHANG: All right, lots more to come. That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks so much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.