President Trump insisted when he made Matthew G. Whitaker his acting attorney general that he wasn’t familiar with Whitaker’s past commentary critical of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.
But his new pick to be the attorney general has a record of making similar comments, and despite some favorable comments from Democrats, those could pose a problem in his coming confirmation fight.
President Trump confirmed Friday that former attorney general William P. Barr will be his nominee to head the Justice Department. Picking George H.W. Bush’s attorney general would seem a pretty safe and confirmable pick, on its surface.
But much like Whitaker’s, Barr’s past commentary has played down the severity of the allegations against Trump — on both the collusion and obstruction-of-justice fronts — and he also has suggested the Clintons should be in more trouble.
In fact, in November 2017, Barr told the New York Times that there was more basis to investigate Hillary Clinton for the Uranium One deal than there is to investigate Trump for potential collusion with Russia. He went so far as to say the Justice Department was wrong to give Clinton a pass.
"To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.
Earlier that same month, Barr also explicitly called for more investigation of the Clintons, telling The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Matt Zapotosky, “I don’t think all this stuff about throwing [Clinton] in jail or jumping to the conclusion that she should be prosecuted is appropriate.” Then he added: “But I do think that there are things that should be investigated that haven’t been investigated.”
In both articles, Barr declined to judge Trump harshly for calling for specific investigations — even ones affecting him and his political opponents, apparently. Barr suggested that was okay for a president as long as the decision was made with respect to the actual evidence at hand and not for political reasons.
But Barr apparently thinks those conditions have been met on the topic Trump had strongly tried and failed to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate — the Clintons — and that has to be music to Trump’s ears.
Barr also has given Trump a complete pass on one of the central events in the Mueller probe: Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director. In a Washington Post op-ed, Barr said Trump not only did nothing wrong but also that he “made the right call”:
It is telling that none of the president’s critics are challenging the decision on the merits. None argue that Comey’s performance warranted keeping him on as director. Instead, they are attacking the president’s motives, claiming the president acted to neuter the investigation into Russia’s role in the election.
The notion that the integrity of this investigation depends on Comey’s presence just does not hold water. Contrary to the critics’ talking points, Comey was not “in charge” of the investigation.
At other points, Barr has also supported Trump’s firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates (with which many legal experts agree), and, like Trump, he has criticized the political donations of the prosecutors on Mueller’s team.
"In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” Barr said. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”
Barr also has a relevant history with special counsels and has appointed some himself. But when Bush in 1992 decided to pardon several figures in the Iran-contra scandal, he took the legs out from beneath the independent prosecutor investigating the matter. And one of the people Bush consulted was Barr. At the time, the prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, called it “a sort of Saturday night massacre” — a reference to high-profile President Richard M. Nixon firings during the thick of the Watergate scandal.
It seems quite the coincidence that Trump has settled on yet another attorney general who might be prepared to take his side on these very personal and political investigative issues in a way Sessions wouldn’t. It’s also notable that Barr seems to believe it isn’t so necessary to erect a wall between the presidency and the nation’s top law enforcement official — a wall that Trump has long desired to demolish.