Former attorney general William P. Barr is President Trump’s leading candidate to be nominated to lead the Justice Department, according to people familiar with the deliberations — a choice that could be announced in coming days as the agency presses forward with a probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr, 68, a well-respected Republican lawyer who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, has emerged as a favorite among a number of Trump administration officials, including senior lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office, these people said. Two people familiar with internal discussions said the president has told advisers in recent days that he plans to nominate Barr.
Administration officials are preparing for the likelihood that Barr’s nomination will be announced in the coming days, these people said. Barr declined to comment.
Given the political fights enveloping the Justice Department, any attorney general nominee is likely to face tough questions at a Senate confirmation hearing.
The president has repeatedly accused the department of launching a biased investigation into his campaign and claimed that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is conducting a “witch hunt” targeting him and his aides. Democrats want assurances the department’s next leader will resist political pressure from the White House; Republicans want assurances the department will operate investigations in an evenhanded fashion toward members of both parties.
Barr’s past statements about the Russia probe, in which he has questioned the political tilt of Mueller’s team, could give some Democrats fodder to attack Barr’s nomination, but several Republican operatives who support Barr for the position noted he once worked alongside Mueller in the Justice Department and said his track record from the Bush administration should ease any Democratic concerns that the department would see its independence eroded.
One person familiar with the discussions cautioned that while Barr is the leading candidate, the decision is not final and the president could decide to pick someone else.
Another person familiar with the discussions said Barr is “a really serious contender and possibly the front-runner” for the job but stressed it was impossible to predict Trump’s pick definitively until it was announced publicly.
That person said those advising the president viewed Barr as someone who knows the department well and is a good manager. Barr, this person said, also has a bluntness that is likely to resonate with the president.
“The president is very, very focused on [a candidate] looking the part and having credentials consistent with the part,” the person said.
Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who is now in private practice and represents Vice President Pence, said Barr “truly would be the gold standard in terms of what any president of the United States would be looking for in terms of experience, judgment and intelligence. He’s the real deal.”
Those familiar with the discussions said Barr, having already been attorney general, doesn’t feel a particular ambition for the position but does feel a sense of duty to take it if offered.
An alternate candidate is Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), a conservative whose support of the president has won the attention and backing of some inside the White House, these people said. Others who were considered for the job but now appear out of the running include John Michael Luttig, a former U.S. appeals judge and Justice Department official who is now the top lawyer at Boeing, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. Acosta’s chances dropped precipitously after a Miami Herald report detailed his role in the prosecution of a billionaire sex offender who victims say was given light punishment, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The current acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, had also hoped to be nominated for the job, according to people familiar with the internal discussions. Whitaker is set to appear Friday with the president at a law enforcement gathering in Kansas City, Mo.
Even if Barr were announced as the president’s choice this week, it could take months for a confirmation vote, given the congressional schedule. In the meantime, Whitaker would remain in his role until a nominee is confirmed. Whitaker’s selection, even as a temporary replacement for Jeff Sessions, angered Democrats who question both his résumé and the legal justification for the move, given that he was not serving in a Senate-confirmed capacity. Trump forced out Sessions in early November, after the midterm elections.
Administration officials expect Barr’s nomination would be received positively by Republicans, who respect his experience, and Democrats, who might view him as an old-school GOP lawyer with no particular personal loyalty to the president.
George Terwilliger, who served as the No. 2 official in the Justice Department when Barr was attorney general, said Barr would bring “40 years of high-level experience, both in government and in business, which gives him a perspective that fits many of this administration’s priorities.”
“I have no way of knowing if the report that he’s a leading candidate is accurate, but if he was, because of both his government and corporate background, he would enjoy widespread support — both in and outside the legal community,” Terwilliger said.
After leaving the Justice Department, Barr served in a variety of high-level corporate positions, including as general counsel and executive vice president of Verizon Communications. He is currently a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis and does work advising corporations on government enforcement and regulatory actions.
Barr’s daughter, Mary Daly, is a senior Justice Department official overseeing the agency’s efforts against opioid abuse and addiction.
As attorney general in the early 1990s, when crime rates were far higher than they are today, Barr advocated a get-tough approach and sending repeat offenders to prison for long sentences. That viewpoint could come into conflict with efforts by the White House and in Congress to scale back some prison sentences as part of an effort to reform the criminal justice system.
At that time, Mueller led the department’s criminal division, reporting directly to Barr. The two worked together on the multiyear investigation into the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Barr shares at least one of the president’s views on the probe being conducted by Mueller. In 2017, when asked by The Washington Post about political donations made by lawyers on the special counsel’s team, Barr said that “prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” and added: “I would have liked to see [Mueller] have more balance on this group.”
Barr also wrote last year that the administration’s decision to fire James B. Comey as FBI director was “quite understandable” because, in his view, Comey had usurped the power of the attorney general when he publicly announced his recommendation not to charge former secretary of state Hillary Clinton during the investigation of her private email server. The events that led up to Comey’s firing have become part of Mueller’s investigation, which is seeking to determine whether the president sought to obstruct the Russia probe.
In a 2001 interview, Barr revealed how little he thought of a special counsel who vexed him during the Bush administration — Lawrence Walsh, who was tapped to oversee the Iran-contra case. Barr said Walsh “was certainly a headhunter and had completely lost perspective, and was out there flailing about on Iran-contra with a lot of headhunters working for him. The whole tenor of the administration was affected by that.”
Sari Horwitz, Rosalind S. Helderman and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.