Trump’s AG pick falls short
William Barr is relatively qualified, especially for a Trump nominee. In fact, he held the office he has been nominated for, attorney general, under President George H. W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. One would assume that prior experience would have prepared him for a strong showing in his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Unfortunately, Barr fell short — specifically in his commentary and commitments with regard to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
For one, Barr refused to recuse himself from overseeing the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump orbit to influence our 2016 election. In fact, he wouldn’t even promise to follow the advice of ethics officials of the Justice Department on whether or not he should do so.
Barr also declined to promise to make the results of the Mueller investigation public, despite the fact that the American people clearly deserve to see any and all conclusions about how our democracy was influenced by a foreign power. He wouldn’t agree to any stringent protections for the special counsel either, offering only his word that he wouldn’t fire Mueller without cause. (These assurances are a necessity, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still blocking bipartisan legislation meant to prohibit the president from a politically-motivated firing of one of his favorite angry tweet targets.)
All of this presents cause for concern because Barr has previously been vocally opposed to the special counsel’s investigation. He wrote an unsolicited memo in June of 2018 detailing for the White House why he found part of the probe to be “fatally misconceived” and arguing - based on his limited knowledge of the case as a private citizen - that there was no obstruction case against President Trump. In addition, Barr had also praised the president’s more dubious decisions before, including his firing of then-FBI Director James Comey (which the president said he did because of the “Russia thing”).
Were these merely efforts by Barr to put himself forward for a position in the high-turnover environment of this administration? Perhaps so - others have done less to get the attention of the Trump White House and ended up comfortably employed, at least for a time. Regardless, these particular actions raise a red flag in light of the would-be attorney general’s unwillingness to commit to defending the Russia investigation in a way that satisfies all parties involved.
What Barr needed to do during his hearing was show that he prioritized law and order over the favor of his president. He could have recused on account of his past opposition to the Mueller probe and indicated that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein could continue overseeing his work, but he did not. He could have promised to make even just the results, if not the full report, from the investigation public, but he would not. And he could have spoken in favor of bipartisan legislation to protect the special counsel from a politically-motivated firing (or even voiced support for more stringent protections, like those offered by Acting Attorney General Robert Bork to the second Watergate prosecutor in 1973).
He did not.
Regardless of party, most Americans can agree that we seem to be living in extraordinary times. With new Russia-related revelations coming by the day, we need an attorney general who is clear and unequivocal about prioritizing transparency, accountability, and oversight.
Unfortunately, Barr’s confirmation hearing was far from sending that much-needed signal.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at email@example.com.