Justice Department veterans on Friday celebrated President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would select William Barr, a member of the Justice Department’s old guard and a former attorney general under George H.W. Bush, to be his next attorney general.
Barr, who worked his way from a night school law student and up through the ranks of the Department of Justice, is widely viewed by legal observers as a deeply experienced attorney with bipartisan respect.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is said to be “elated” by the choice of Barr and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has always held his predecessor in high regard, a source close to both men said.
If confirmed this time around, Barr will be tasked with guiding the Department through battles on multiple fronts – not only with a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, but potentially overseeing a politically charged investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and answering to Trump, whose presidency thus fast has been marked by attacks on the DOJ and the FBI for a perceived failure to target his former political rivals.
Barr has been semi-retired for a number of years but is willing to accept the position, sources familiar with his thinking have said. It would be an unusual boomerang back into government service for Barr, 68, who left the Justice Department for top corporate roles, including as the general counsel of Verizon, more than two decades ago.
A friend of Barr’s who has spoken with him recently said he would likely accept the job out of a “sense of patriotism” and because he supports the administration.
Despite previous Senate confirmation, Barr’s resume will face renewed scrutiny in a hearing process that could play out over the next two months.
Already, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have seized on comments Barr made to newspapers last year supporting Trump’s calls for the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton’s connections to a deal with a Russian-owned uranium company, and criticized special counsel Robert Mueller, who worked under Barr at the Justice Department, for hiring prosecutors who made contributions to Democrats.
“Barr’s strange calls for the department to investigate fringe conspiracy theories involving the Clintons raise questions, both about his partisanship and judgment. His confirmation will require close scrutiny in the Senate,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, said.
Longtime experience at Justice Department
Barr was appointed to his first role at the Justice Department after helping the 1988 Bush campaign in its vice presidential selection process. As the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, he worked closely with the White House and produced a 10-page memo outlining a broad vision of the executive branch’s power to rebuff Congress’ oversight attempts.
He later served as the deputy attorney general, the department’s No. 2, before moving into interim leadership of the Justice Department when Bush’s first attorney general, Richard Thornburg, stepped down to campaign for an open Senate seat.
In his first days as acting attorney general, more than 100 Cuban inmates awaiting deportation from a federal prison in Talladega, Alabama, took nearly a dozen prison workers – Justice Department employees – hostage. Barr has said his decision-making leading to the successful FBI rescue operation that followed was the event that had the greatest impact and left him feeling most satisfied in his years at the Justice Department.
His judgment in the Talladega episode earned him the respect of Bush, who nominated Barr to fill out his term as the permanent attorney general, according to Stephen Colgate, a friend of Barr’s and a former assistant attorney general for administration.
“Having somebody there who understands it as an institution and has faced controversial decisions in the past I think is a real win for the Department of Justice,” Colgate said.
Barr took on lucrative private sector roles after Bush’s 1992 election defeat, serving as the top lawyer of GTE Corporation until the company merged with Bell Atlantic to become Verizon. He was the general counsel and executive vice president of the company until his retirement in 2008.
Barr is currently with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, and sat on the board of CNN’s former parent company Time Warner through this year.
Barr was seen as one of the more influential directors at Time Warner and played an important role around the company’s merger with AT&T, which was challenged last year by the Justice Department, according to a former senior Time Warner executive who requested anonymity to discuss the board’s work.
“He had wise counsel in the deliberations over the merger itself and then was particularly helpful in helping us navigate through the bureaucracy of the Department of Justice in the lead up to the decision to sue us,” the former executive said.
A federal judge has since approved AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, and Barr would likely have to recuse himself from any dealings regarding the Justice Department’s ongoing appeal if confirmed – but senators will nevertheless likely press him for views on Trump’s involvement in seeking to block the merger.
Barr is known for maintaining humor through difficult situations, though. At a reception in the attorney general’s conference room after his swearing-in ceremony in 1991, Barr surprised guests with a turn on the bagpipe – a longtime talent of his.
His pending confirmation process and the prospect of a bruising fight in the Senate may not be at the top of his mind, however: one of his three daughters is getting married this weekend.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Ariane De Vogue contributed to this report.