William Barr takes over the Justice Department on Thursday at a pivotal moment for the nation’s legal landscape, with his tenure closely tied to how he will handle the special counsel’s Russia investigation and any political pressure from the White House.
The Senate voted 54-45 to confirm Barr as the next attorney general, mostly along party lines. Senators have strong clues that he will continue the Trump administration’s conservative policies and legal arguments on immigration, civil rights enforcement and LGBT employment discrimination.
But senators lack a clear picture of exactly how much information Barr will make public when Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III submits a report on his probe into the 2016 presidential election — and that ultimately became a central focus of the confirmation debate.
“As to how much he will release, we will know when he gets the report,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the floor. “But here is what I do believe: He is going to err on the side of transparency.”
Watch: Barr and Mueller are friends? Hearing unlikely to derail attorney general confirmation
Barr, 68, pitched himself to senators as an end-of-career professional, ready to step into a job he previously held for two years during the George Bush administration, with the ability to bring a steady hand to the department he loves and do the right thing without caring about the political consequences.
He said the divided country needs a credible resolution of the special counsel probe, free of “partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration.” He said he would resign before firing Mueller without good cause, and inform the public and Congress of as much as possible of what Mueller reports to him.
Barr won the support of all Republicans but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who raised concerns about Barr’s views on domestic surveillance. He also got votes from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
But other Democrats, such as Judiciary Committee member Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., questioned whether Barr’s assertion of independence and transparency during the confirmation process will stand up to President Donald Trump.
Whitehouse said that Barr’s answers, taken together, left open a loophole that could mean Barr would not release any Mueller findings on Trump. Barr told the committee that Justice Department policy is to not release derogatory investigative information about people who are not charged with a crime. And there's a decades-old internal DOJ legal opinion, never tested in court, that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
“Despite the terrific top-line assertions that Mr. Barr made, when you drill down into the weeds you couldn’t get a straight answer,” Whitehouse said on the floor. “When it’s not so public, and when the pressure’s really on, and when hard decisions have to be made, it’s impossible for me to believe that he won’t lean toward yielding to the president rather than defending and honoring the department.”
There’s no solid information about when Mueller might end his investigation, which has resulted in indictments of Trump’s former campaign manager, personal lawyer and national security adviser and informal aide, as well as Russians and others.
CNN reported Wednesday that Barr has started discussing with top Justice Department officials about what to report to Congress about the Mueller investigation and who will be his deputy attorney general.
Part of the concerns from Democrats are rooted in Barr’s broad view of presidential power, one that he detailed in a memo he sent on his own initiative to the Justice Department last year that called into question one theory of prosecution against Trump that Mueller might be considering.
Democrats who voted against Barr also pointed to Barr’s support for Trump’s travel ban that focused on majority-Muslim countries, and how he stopped short of saying he would not advocate to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision establishing the right to an abortion, if a new court challenge arose.
The Justice Department represents the government in federal courts on litigation positions that reflect conservative policy views. The department declined to defendthe 2010 health care law in a challenge from Texas and other conservative states, and is pressing the Supreme Court to settle challenges in favorthe government’s moves to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Judiciary Committee member Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, was among Republicans who said there was no reason to doubt Barr’s sincerity or his commitment to the law.
“I don’t believe that he would bow to any kind of pressure, even from the president, if he thought that there were a problem with the legality, constitutionality or ethics of an issue,” Grassley said on the floor.
But Grassley did join forces with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., after Barr’s testimony to introduce a bill that would require that a special counsel provide a report to Congress and the American people at the conclusion of an investigation.
Barr, a conservative lawyer at Kirkland and Ellis law firm in Washington who ran the Justice Department from 1991 to 1993, spent 14 years working at GTE, which later became Verizon, and advises major corporations.
Barr replaces acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who has been in the spotlight since Jeff Sessions was forced to resign in November.