William Barr: Who is Trump’s Controversial Attorney General Nominee?

On Dec. 7, 2018, one month after Jeff Sessions’ requested resignation — President Donald Trump announced that he would nominate William Barr for attorney general of the United States. Barr, a staunchly conservative lawyer and former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, has proven a highly controversial nominee. Barr’s expansive views on Executive power and his 2018 memo calling Mueller’s obstruction probe “legally insupportable” have sparked widespread concern that his nomination could have major implications for Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference. 

Photo Courtesy of William Barr’s Website

William Barr grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and was raised Catholic. He obtained his B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University, and graduated from George Washington University Law School with highest honors in 1977. In 1991, Barr was appointed attorney general under George H.W. Bush in a confirmation hearing described as “unusually placid”, in which he received positive reception from Democrats and Republicans alike. During the hearing, Barr revealed his controversial anti-abortion position. “I do not believe the right to privacy extends to abortion,” Barr said. “I think my views are consistent with the views that have been taken by the department since 1983, which is that Roe. v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled.” In a 1992 CNN interview, Barr contended that “the Supreme Court should not be the referee in this area,” and rather, the decision “should be left to the state.”

As the head of the U.S. Department of Justice, Barr would have immense power over the federal criminal justice system, a prospect that severely worries criminal justice reformers. During his previous tenure as attorney general, Barr served as the key architect for federal policies that supported the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Following Barr’s nomination, Ames Grawert, Senior Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, tweeted “Barr is one of the few people left in policy circles who could reasonably be called as bad as, or worse than, Jeff Sessions on criminal justice reform.” Indeed, a 1992 article published in The New York Times described the “central theme” of Barr’s tenure to be “his contention that violent crime can be reduced only by expanding Federal and state prisons to jail habitual violent offenders.” In 1992, Barr signed off on a U.S. Department of Justice report titled, “The Case for More Incarceration.” In his letter of support, he argued 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.” 

Today, Barr claims to recognize that his positions on sentencing were stronger in the past, but still does not renounce them. Rather, he claims his positions were warranted in the context of high crime rates in the early 1990s. 

Concern surrounding the Mueller Investigation stems from Barr’s public defense of Trump’s firing of Comey in May 2017. In an op-ed written for The Washington Post, Barr supported Trump’s decision to fire Comey, claiming that “when he announced the outcome of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state, he crossed a line that is fundamental to the allocation of authority in the Justice Department.” Ultimately, Barr concluded that “Comey’s removal simply has no relevance to the integrity of the Russia investigation as it moves ahead.” Further, Barr claimed that Mueller’s probe into potential obstruction of justice by President Trump was based on a “fatally misconceived” theory. Despite his personal criticisms of the investigation, Barr vowed during his Jan. 15 hearing that he would allow the special counsel to complete the Russia investigation unimpeded. “I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong, by anybody, whether it be editorial boards or Congress or the president,” Barr said. “I’m going to do what I think is right.” 

On Jan. 29, the Senate panel elected to postone William Barr’s confirmation vote amidst Democratic opposition and widespread concern surrounding the special counsel investigation. The vote will be held on Feb. 7. 

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