The US Senate has confirmed William Barr as attorney general, puttingthe longtime lawyer atop the Justice Department and putting him in charge of overseeing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-running probe of whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.
Trump announced he would nominate Barr, 68, in December 2018, after Jeff Sessions resigned at Trump’s request in November.
The Senate voted 54 to 45, largely along party lines. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Barr will be sworn in on Thursday afternoon in the Oval Office of the White House by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Many Democrats opposed Barr out of concern he might not make Mueller’s findings fully public. But the Senate is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, so Barr’s confirmation was virtually assured.
“Today is a great day for the Department of Justice with the confirmation of William Barr to be the next Attorney General,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham.
“He is a steady hand at a time of turmoil and he will bring much-needed reform to the Department of Justice.”
He previously held the position under George HW Bush between 1991 and 1993.
Before that, he briefly served in the CIA in the early 1970s and served as domestic policy staff from 1982 to 1983, while Republican Ronald Reagan was president.
So, where does Barr stand on some of the most important issues in the United States?
Racism in criminal justice
During a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Corey Booker questioned Barr about his past claims that there is “no statistical evidence” of racial disparity in the US criminal justice system.
Although Barr backtracked on those comments, Booker pointed out that Barr, as attorney general in 1992, signed off on a report titled The Case for More Incarceration.
During a 1992 interview, Barr also said he did not believe the US justice system treats “people differently” based on their race.
“That is, if a black and a white are charged with the same offence, generally they will get the same treatment in the system, and ultimately the same penalty,” Barr said at the time.
Decades of studies, however, have generally agreed that African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned in the US.
At the end of Booker and Barr’s exchange this week, the nominee admitted that African Americans are jailed at inflated rates, but suggested that, “I think the reduction in crime has [benefit the black community] since 1992, but I think that the heavy drug penalties, especially on crack and other things, have harmed the black community, the incarceration rates.”
Freedom of the press
Since coming to office, Trump has launched repeated attacks on the press at large and many journalists, describing media as “the enemy of the people”.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared willing to put some of Trump’s views on the press into practice by suggesting that the Department of Justice would increase its efforts to track down leakers and whistleblowers.
Sessions had also talked of readjusting rules for issuing subpoenas to journalists.
While pressed on the issue of media freedom on Tuesday, Barr did not appear to present a radical break from Sessions or Trump.
“If you’re confirmed, will the Justice Department jail reporters for doing their jobs?” Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar asked.
Barr replied by saying jailing journalists would be a “last resort”.
“I know there are guidelines in place, and I can conceive of situations where, as a last resort,” Barr replied, “and where a news organisation has run through a red flag or something like that, knows that they’re putting out stuff that will hurt the country, there could be a situation where someone would be held in contempt.”
Barr’s hardline record on immigration differs little from the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda.
Barr also condemned sanctuary cities, baselessly claiming that they encouraged migrants to travel to the US.
Arguing that most asylum seekers fail to obtain that status, Barr said it would be better to block them from entering the country at all.
During his tenure as attorney general under George HW Bush, Barr oversaw an effort to strictly enforce immigration restrictions.
If confirmed, Barr could become an important ally for Trump at a time when he seeks to radically decrease immigration and erect a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Barr also expressed his support for Trump’s attempts to ban travellers for several Muslim-majority countries.
If confirmed, Barr would be in charge of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.
Trump frequently criticises the Mueller probe as a “witch-hunt” and has denied any collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice. Russia has denied US intelligence agencies’ findings that it interfered in the 2016 election.
During his confirmation hearings, Barr said that on his watch, “Bob will be allowed to complete his work.”
Democrats worry that Trump’s administration may try to undercut the investigation.
Barr said he doesn’t believe Mueller “would be involved in a witch-hunt”, adding that it was “unimaginable” that the special counsel would do anything in the investigation that would justify reeling it in or shutting it down.
Barr said he agreed with Mueller’s charge that Russian entities interfered in the election, or at least tried to do so. He said he described Mueller, a longtime friend, as a “straight shooter” when Trump asked about him.
Mueller is due to submit a final report to the attorney general, prompting concern from some Democrats that the Trump administration will try to quash his findings. Barr said he would not let Trump modify the report and would make public as many of Mueller’s findings as possible.
Barr faced tough questions from Democrats about an unsolicited, 19-page memo he wrote last year that called Mueller’s probe “fatally misconceived” for examining whether Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey in 2017.
“It does raise questions about your willingness to reach conclusions before knowing the facts, and whether you prejudge the Mueller investigation,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat.
Barr said his memo did not question the legitimacy of the probe as a whole, but only expressed concerns that the special counsel might be improperly interpreting one aspect of the law.
“I think it was entirely proper,” he said of the memo, saying it was not unusual for former Justice Department officials to share their views of legal matters.
He said he had written a similar memo criticising the department’s corruption case against Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, which ended in a mistrial in 2017.
Barr’s views of presidential power could be important as prosecutors and Democrats in the House of Representatives, where they hold the majority, intensify investigations of Trump’s personal business practices and his presidency.
The nominee said during his hearings that a president does have the power to pardon a family member, but that the power could not be abused.
“Yes, he does have the power to pardon a family member, but he would then have to face the fact that he could be held accountable for abusing his power,” he said. “Or, if it was connected to some act that violates an obstruction statute, it could be an obstruction,” Barr added.
According to Martha Kinsella, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, Barr “has a history of involvement with controversial pardons”.
“For example, Barr advised President George HW Bush to pardon six Reagan officials who were involved in the Iran-Contra affair, without consulting the pardon attorney. The pardons impacted Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh’s investigation of the Iran-Contra affair,” she wrote on her group’s website.
During Barr’s confirmation hearings, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, also asked Barr what conditions would justify indicting a sitting president.
“In my opinion, if a president attempts to intervene in a matter he has a stake in to protect himself, that should first be looked at as a breach of his constitutional duties,” Barr said.
“You know, for 40 years the position of the executive branch has been you can’t indict a sitting president,” Barr says. “I see no reason to change them.”
Barr also pledged to support and uphold the False Claims Act, a law that lets whistleblowers file lawsuits to help the federal government recover losses due to fraud.
“I will diligently enforce the False Claims Act,” Barr told Republican Senator Charles Grassley, marking a reversal from prior comments he made in which he declared the law was an abomination and unconstitutional.