In a White House unsettled by the ongoing Russia probe—and unprepared for its conclusion—the president on Friday signaled a solution to at least one of the many problems before him: who would permanently replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
Heading to Marine One on the South Lawn, Donald Trump said he intends to nominate William Barr, a former attorney general under George H. W. Bush, to take over the Justice Department.
“He was my first choice since day one,” Trump told reporters. “He’ll be nominated.”
If confirmed, Barr would take over a department roiled by the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Russians. Sessions resigned in November after enduring nearly two years of attacks from the president over his recusal from the Russia investigation. The department has been headed in the meantime by Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general, who had been Sessions’s chief of staff.
Leading Democrats have contested Whitaker’s appointment, saying he could not lawfully serve as attorney general because he had not been confirmed by the Senate. They also said Whitaker should not be overseeing the Mueller probe, given comments he had made as a cable-news commentator before joining the Trump administration about the illegitimacy of the investigation. As it happened, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has continued overseeing the work of the special counsel since Whitaker’s interim appointment.
Whether Barr intends to oversee the investigation, assuming he is confirmed, is a critical question that remains to be answered. He represents a rare departure from the so-called outsider profile Trump typically prefers in appointees. The 68-year-old served as George H. W. Bush’s attorney general from 1991 to 1993 before working a series of stints in the corporate world, including as executive vice president of Verizon Communications. In 2017, he joined the law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
Barr may be a relative creature of Washington, but he’ll likely face a contentious path to confirmation, given a series of recent public comments on the Mueller probe. His nomination comes just as Mueller appears to be nearing a critical phase of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Senate Democrats are expected to grill him on his past remarks about the probe.
In November 2017, for instance, he told The New York Times that Hillary Clinton’s alleged role in a uranium deal with Russia merited more attention than potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. And earlier that year, after a series of leaks about the investigation, he suggested that Mueller’s team might be operating with political motives. “Leaks by any investigation are deplorable and raise questions as to whether there is an agenda,” Barr told The Hill.
Nevertheless, for Trump, Barr’s comments likely mark a welcome departure from the silence of Sessions, whom the president never forgave for recusing himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation and handing the reins to the deputy AG, Rosenstein. “I don’t have an attorney general,” Trump told The Hill in September. “It’s very sad.”
With Barr, Trump hopes to be getting an attorney general far more willing to speak up on his behalf than Sessions ever was—along with someone Washington insiders are willing to applaud on cable news. “I’ve seen very good things about him even over the last day or so, when people thought it might be Bill Barr,” Trump told reporters.