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Opinion Confirm William Barr — and hold him to his pledge of independence

Attorney general nominee William P. Barr appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Attorney general nominee William P. Barr appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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“IN THE current environment, the American people have to know that there are places in the government where the rule of law, not politics, holds sway,” William P. Barr said on Tuesday. “The Department of Justice must be such a place.”

That was an important and reassuring message from President Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, who spent the day answering questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Barr, who served as attorney general once before, under president George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, is a conservative Republican with views that not every American will embrace. But he came across as highly qualified and committed to the traditions, procedures and mores of the Justice Department.

Mr. Barr expressed confidence in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, pledged to ensure the Russia probe would not be undermined without good cause and said he would seek to release as much information as possible about Mr. Mueller’s findings. He also promised to prioritize securing U.S. elections.

Much of the hearing centered on a memo Mr. Barr sent last June to Justice Department officials, in which he argued that Mr. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey should not be construed as obstruction of justice. Mr. Barr’s expansive view of presidential deference is concerning, but in his testimony he limited the extent of that deference. He insisted that the president would be guilty of obstruction if he coerced someone to change testimony, suborned perjury or tampered with evidence. Mr. Barr said he would not stand by and watch the president fire a prosecutor in order to end a legitimate investigation. Presidential tampering in the administration of justice on behalf of personal interests would be “a breach of his constitutional duties” and “an abuse of power,” he said.

At times, Mr. Barr seemed slightly out-of-time. He admitted ignorance of recent changes in electronic surveillance law. He defended his get-tough-on-crime past promoting stiff sentences in the early 1990s, and in the process appeared to claim that racial disparities in the justice system are less of a problem than many experts believe. But he said Congress was right to reassess harsh sentencing laws last year in the First Step Act, which he promised to faithfully apply.

Similarly, he sympathized with former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s permissive attitude toward overseeing local police departments. He nevertheless insisted that the Justice Department still has a role in policing “pattern or practice” problems among local authorities. He should keep that in mind as he reviews the justice system’s record on racial equity.

Mr. Barr decried the confusing and unsettled state of marijuana policy in the United States, but he pledged no crackdown on those who have followed looser state laws and the Obama administration’s policy of noninterference. He repeatedly insisted that more barriers are needed on the southern border, but that is hardly surprising from a Trump nominee.

“I can be truly independent,” Mr. Barr declared Tuesday. The Senate should quickly confirm him and hold him to that pledge.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Democratic senators catch William Barr out on criminal justice

Elizabeth Holtzman: I was in Congress during Nixon’s impeachment proceedings. William Barr is wrong.

Chris Coons: Here are the commitments William Barr needs to make to be attorney general

Jennifer Rubin: Why would William Barr want to join this White House?

The Post’s View: The First Step Act will offer a fairer deal to prison inmates