When nominees for Cabinet jobs come before the Senate, the burning question is often how they would handle a particular policy matter. But in the case of Bill Barr, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, that question was answered before the hearings began, when Barr said in prepared remarks that he believes Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to complete his work.
That meant the single biggest mystery looming over Tuesday’s hearing was less political than metaphysical: Why would Barr want the job? It’s been clear since at least the summer of 2017 that Trump is an impossible boss, liable to pressure his underlings into unethical behavior and to berate them publicly if they refuse. Moreover, it’s hard to think of any Trump officials other than former Defense Secretary James Mattis who have emerged from the administration with their reputation unharmed.
Senator Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, asked Barr directly why he wants the job.
“Well, because I love the [Justice] Department and all its components, including the FBI,” Barr said. “I think they’re critical institutions that are essential to preserving the rule of law, which is the heartbeat of this country … I feel that I’m in a position in life where I can provide the leadership necessary to protect the independence and reputation of the department.”
That drily delivered answer contains a great deal of meat. It’s impossible to read his statements about rule of law and the “independence and reputation” of the Justice Department as anything other than an implicit rebuke of Trump, who has tried to railroad the department into prosecuting political adversaries and overriding ethical recommendations; of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resisted Trump’s biggest pressures but saw DOJ take a steep decline in esteem; and of Matt Whitaker, the political apparatchik who’s now the acting attorney general.
Barr came across, during the hearing, as the sort of Washington figure who holds a near-religious reverence for the Justice Department. Not only did Barr previously serve as attorney general, late in George H. W. Bush’s presidency, but he also has a long list of relations who work or have worked at the department—as well as an 8-year-old grandson who, he quipped, “will someday be in the Department of Justice.”
Barr’s veneration for the DOJ seems to be a powerful force in his desire to take the job again. He may also nurse the same ambition as many people who have held powerful jobs: the desire to hold them again. Being attorney general is a plum position, and whatever caveats might apply in the Trump administration, people want Cabinet roles.
Barr’s paeans to the rule of law and independence of the Justice Department also suggest he might feel some of the same sense of duty to protect the country from Trump that compelled Mattis to serve, despite his misgivings. Perhaps Barr harbors dreams of being a modern-day Elliot Richardson, the attorney general who stood up to Richard Nixon and resigned rather than fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Barr did tell senators he’d resign before doing something illegal, but the prospect of martyrdom is an unlikely reason to take a job.
Like Mattis, Barr shows little evidence of being a real Trumpist. His interest in the rule of law is enough evidence of that, as is his service to Bush, a president with few if any similarities to Trump. Barr is a conservative Republican in the old mold, but Trump is not. On Tuesday, Barr praised Mueller as a man of impeccable integrity and said the special counsel would not take part in a witch hunt (though Barr allowed that Trump might feel persecuted, since he is the one under investigation).
The one exception in Barr’s recent past is the unsolicited memo that he submitted to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein criticizing one interpretation of the law on obstruction of justice, related to the Mueller probe. Barr tried to write the memo off as a speculative interpretation based on little real knowledge of Mueller’s view of obstruction of justice—as though his input carried only the weight of an obscure legal blogger and not a former attorney general.
Barr told the senators that he had met Trump for the first time only when the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, approached him about possibly serving as Trump’s personal attorney. Barr said that he agreed to meet the president but had no intention of taking the job.
“My wife and I were sort of looking forward to a bit of respite, and I didn’t want to put my head into that meat grinder,” he explained. Yet while defending the president personally might be even harder than serving as his attorney general, that sentiment suggests Barr has a good sense of what he’s in for. He also said he’s told younger people that they’d be unwise to take the attorney-general job if they have future political ambitions, and said he was only doing so because he was at the end of his career.
“It might give me pause if I were 45 or 50 years old but it doesn’t give me pause right now,” he said, adding in a Freudian slip: “I had a very good life—I have a very good life.”
If there is no obvious answer to why Barr would take the attorney-general job, there’s also no clear explanation for why he thinks he’ll be able to resist the gravitational pull of Donald Trump better than anyone else in the president’s orbit.
“I am not going to do anything that I think is wrong, and 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.
Given the president’s track record, Barr will have a chance to test that soon enough.