In 2007, the Justice Department was in disarray. Though it was largely exaggerated, a controversy over the firing of some United States attorneys, the intrusion of politics into Justice Department hiring decisions, and White House contacts with Main Justice forced the resignation of an overmatched attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
The Justice Department is not just any arm of government. It is a bulwark of the rule of law on which our domestic tranquility and prosperity depend. It is a watchman against terrorists and hostile foreign powers, ensuring our domestic security. When it is reeling, the nation is reeling. In 2007, it was reeling.
Then, in a masterstroke, President Bush named Michael B. Mukasey as the new attorney general. A distinguished former Justice Department prosecutor, Judge Mukasey had been as accomplished and exemplary a jurist as the nation could produce. His nomination was exactly the shot in the arm the Justice Department needed. Order was restored, thanks to the respect he’d earned from all quarters, including both sides of the congressional aisle, for his legal acumen and scrupulousness.
In a time of similar tumult, President Trump has hit a similar home run, nominating William P. Barr to be the next attorney general. Bill Barr will restore order.
Barr brings much-needed experience and instant credibility to the task. After all, he has already been the nation’s chief federal law-enforcement officer, serving as attorney general in the last years of President George H. W. Bush’s term. He is a lawyer’s lawyer, having led the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel before being elevated by Bush 41 to deputy AG and, ultimately, the top job. He has rightly been adamant that, while an attorney general is a consequential administration official, the AG’s first allegiance is to the Constitution and the laws.
Importantly, when Barr was attorney general, the chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division was a fellow by the name of Robert Mueller — now the special counsel running the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, including any Trump-campaign “collusion” therein.
Barr and Mueller had a fine working relationship. That will come in handy because, once Barr is confirmed, Mueller will again be reporting to him. The two men respect each other and know what to expect from each other. Mueller knows that Barr understands that investigations must be insulated from politics. In fact, when the now-lapsed independent-counsel law was in effect, Barr appointed one in 1992 to investigate the Bush administration’s scrutiny of then-candidate Bill Clinton’s passport file.
Still, Mueller also knows Barr will expect prosecutors to grasp that their authority is limited to deciding whether there is sufficient evidence to charge crimes. It is for Congress and the voters, not prosecutors, to go beyond questions of guilt or innocence, to make political assessments of a president’s fitness or judgment. I believe that, where Mueller has real evidence of a crime, Barr will be his strongest prosecutorial ally; and where Mueller lacks evidence, Barr will expect him to close the case the way prosecutors close cases — without fanfare.
At the moment, public focus on the Justice Department is tunneled around Mueller’s investigation, which, as Friday’s latest Trump Twitter tirade demonstrates, is consuming the president’s attention.
Trump maintains that there was no collusion with Russia by his campaign, and that he has not obstructed any investigations. Is it possible Mueller will reach conclusions that contradict these claims? Sure . . . but so far, with the investigation apparently winding down, he has not. The special counsel has filed many charging documents and public court submissions; in none of them has he accused the president of wrongdoing. By now, we know that Trump keeps his own counsel on these matters. Still, one hopes that Barr, with his gravitas and persuasive manner, might convince the president that it is in his interest to refrain from commenting. If Mueller’s eventual findings are damaging, there will be plenty of opportunity to contest them; but the special counsel could well clear Trump. Now is a time for a president to let things run their course, leaving the commentary to the commentators.
Of course, there is a great deal more to the operation of the Justice Department than the Mueller probe.
First and foremost, there is national security. Barr has been one of the country’s best thinkers on counterterrorism for the post-9/11 era. This has come naturally to him: Upon graduating from Columbia in 1973 with degrees in government and Chinese studies, Barr went to work for the CIA as an intelligence analyst and assistant legislative counsel. At the same time, he attended law school at night at George Washington University (later accepting a clerkship on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit). His range of legal and intelligence studies led him to see the need for a comprehensive government approach to the international terrorist threat — a strategy in which, rather than addressing the jihad as a mere crime problem, the Justice Department plays a critical support role alongside the government’s intelligence, military, Treasury, and diplomatic components.
As Congress continues its bipartisan push to reform sentencing law and practice, Barr is an ideal law-enforcement pro to have at the helm. I believe he will be open to reasonable proposals to reduce prison terms for actual non-violent, non-recidivist offenders, while simultaneously recognizing that most federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences do not fit that bill. Barr’s deep experience in the system will provide valuable insight about which anti-recidivism programs show promise and which would more likely imperil communities by releasing unreformed criminals.
In his stint in the Bush 41 administration, Barr also dealt with the savings-and-loan crisis, and he engineered policies to protect financial institutions. In addition, he brought federal resources to bear against violent crime, worked cooperatively with state and local law-enforcement agencies, and enforced civil-rights laws.
In the private realm, Barr is a highly experienced and successful corporate executive. For many years, he was general counsel at Verizon, the international communications giant. Indeed, Barr helped steer the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic that formed Verizon. (As a board member of Time Warner, Barr has been on the opposite side of the Trump Justice Department’s effort to block the company’s merger with AT&T. A federal district judge ultimately approved the merger, and, earlier this week, a federal appeals court heard arguments in the Justice Department’s appeal.) He has been in the forefront of the telecom industry’s challenges to stifling government regulation. As the Trump Justice Department deals with big antitrust questions and the administration continues to pursue the president’s deregulation agenda, Barr’s knowledge of these legally complex issues will be a boon.
While Barr should be an easy confirmation, Democrats and their media allies allow no worthy nominee an easy time. Though he has just been named, Barr is already facing criticism for: defending Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey as an appropriate exercise of presidential power; supporting the president’s firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama holdover who insubordinately refused to enforce Trump’s so-called travel order; questioning Mueller’s judgment in one-sidedly recruiting Democratic partisans to staff his investigation; opining that allegations of possible misconduct against Hillary Clinton appear to warrant investigation (while maintaining that jumping to conclusions against her is inappropriate); defending the president’s calls for investigations (while stressing that such calls must be based on evidence rather than politics); and questioning whether evidence and the law support claims that Trump colluded with Russia or obstructed investigations. As a private citizen, however, Barr had every right to participate in the public debate. Moreover, the positions he took were not merely defensible but correct.
To compare, I’m sure you’ll be stunned to find that the same Democrat–media alliance was enthralled by President Obama’s nomination of Eric Holder to be attorney general. It was of no moment that Holder, as deputy attorney general, had been complicit in President Clinton’s shameful pardon scandal, or that, as an Obama-campaign surrogate, Holder had accused the Bush administration of war crimes and promised a “reckoning.”
This is the skewed state of our politics. Obama aide Ben Rhodes bragged about using a willing press as the Democrats’ “echo chamber,” and Democratic caterwauling about nearly anything President Trump does will be amplified. The best way to navigate the minefield is to nominate high-quality people who can stand the heat. In choosing Bill Barr for attorney general, the president could not have chosen better.