Dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent cap­i­tal awaits AG pick

Af­ter serv­ing un­der steady H.W. Bush, Barr now faces Trump

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Eric Tucker

WASH­ING­TON — When Wil­liam Barr was at­tor­ney gen­eral in the early 1990s, he was out­spo­ken about some of Amer­ica’s big­gest prob­lems — vi­o­lent crime, drug ad­dic­tion, teenage preg­nancy. The “Age of Aquar­ius,” he warned, had given way to crack ba­bies and bro­ken fam­i­lies, mis­ery and squalor.

The rhetoric re­flected Barr’s deepseated per­sonal be­liefs and was typ­i­cal talk for a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can at a time when fam­ily val­ues and tough-on­crime stances de­fined the party.

Now, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s nom­i­nee for at­tor­ney gen­eral, Barr is poised to re­turn to the same job in a dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent Wash­ing­ton.

Repub­li­cans just pushed through the big­gest crim­i­nal jus­tice over­haul in a gen­er­a­tion, eas­ing prison sen­tences. Fam­ily val­ues are sel­dom dis­cussed while Trump, twice-di­vorced and ac­cused of af­fairs and sex­ual mis­con­duct, sits in the White House. Serv­ing Trump, who faces in­ten­si­fy­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions from the de­part­ment Barr would lead, is un­likely to com­pare with his ten­ure un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush.

Trump de­mands loy­alty, break­ing with the prac­tice of shield­ing law en­force­ment from po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence. He pub­licly brow­beats Jus­tice De­part­ment lead­er­ship and ousted his first at­tor­ney gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions, for not pro­tect­ing him in the Rus­sia investigation.

Though the pres­sures on Barr are bound to be enor­mous if he is con­firmed, al­lies de­scribe him as driven by his com­mit­ment to the de­part­ment and clear-eyed about what is ahead.

“I have no doubt that he’s aware of any unique or un­usual chal­lenges that this Jus­tice De­part­ment, his Jus­tice De­part­ment, will con­front,” said long­time friend and for­mer col­league Chuck Cooper, who is also Ses­sions’ lawyer. “He ap­proaches these chal­lenges as a pub­lic servant who loves his coun­try and who’s an­swer­ing the call to ser­vice. That’s the spirit in which Bill Barr is ac­cept­ing these chal­lenges.” The first chal­lenge comes Tues­day when Democrats press him at his Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing on his broad views of pres­i­den­tial power, in­clud­ing an un­so­licited memo he sent the Jus­tice De­part­ment last year crit­i­ciz­ing special coun­sel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the pres­i­dent had sought to ob­struct the Rus­sia investigation. Barr is likely to win con­fir­ma­tion and, given his past ex­pe­ri­ence, prob­a­bly won’t face chal­lenges over his qual­i­fi­ca­tions the way other Trump nom­i­nees have. Repub­li­cans con­trol the Se­nate and could pick up some sup­port from Democrats ea­ger for the de­par­ture of act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker. Democrats wanted Whi­taker to step aside from over­see­ing Mueller’s investigation into links be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign, cit­ing Whi­taker’s crit­i­cism of the in­quiry be­fore he joined the de­part­ment.

Barr would in­herit that investigation as it reaches crit­i­cal de­ci­sions and as Mueller’s most prom­i­nent pro­tec­tor inside the de­part­ment, Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein, ex­pects to de­part.

Though Barr’s han­dling of the investigation is the most press­ing is­sue con­fronting him, equally im­por­tant will be sta­bi­liz­ing a de­part­ment riven by lead­er­ship tu­mult — as well as his own dy­namic with Trump.

Though both Trump and Barr are plain-spo­ken na­tive New York­ers and gen­er­a­tional con­tem­po­raries, the two ap­pear to have lit­tle in com­mon.

Barr, 68, is a prac­tic­ing Catholic and long­time crea­ture of Wash­ing­ton — a CIA alum­nus who climbed the Jus­tice De­part­ment ranks, as­so­ci­ated with es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures long ma­ligned by Trump and de­liv­ered le­gal rea­son­ing be­hind some of the most con­se­quen­tial ac­tions of the time, in­clud­ing the in­va­sion of Panama.

Even if Barr doesn’t in­tro­duce sweep­ing pol­icy changes, he might none­the­less have to ad­just to the shift­ing winds of the White House or fel­low Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion, for in­stance, re­cently backed leg­is­la­tion re­duc­ing manda­tory min­i­mum pun­ish­ments and giv­ing judges more dis­cre­tion when sen­tenc­ing some drug of­fend­ers.

Barr will re­as­sure law­mak­ers that he sup­ports the law, ac­cord­ing to a per­son close to the con­fir­ma­tion process who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. That’s a strik­ing de­par­ture from Barr’s in­sis­tence as at­tor­ney gen­eral, in the face of homi­cide rates that dwarf to­day’s to­tals, that “we are not puni­tive enough” about vi­o­lent crime.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

At­tor­ney Gen­eral nom­i­nee Wil­liam Barr de­parts af­ter a con­gres­sional meet­ing on Capi­tol Hill on Wed­nes­day.

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