President says he will nominate Barr as the nation’s next attorney general
WASHINGTON – President Trump on Friday said he intended to nominate William P. Barr, who served as attorney general during the first Bush administration from 1991 to 1993, to return as head of the Justice Department.
“He was my first choice since Day 1,” Trump told reporters as he walked from the White House to a helicopter for a trip to Kansas City, Mo. “He’ll be nominated.”
Trump’s focus on Barr, who supports a strong vision of executive powers, had emerged over the past week following the ouster last month of Jeff Sessions as attorney general and the turbulent reception that greeted his installation of Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general.
Trump also announced that Heather Nauert, the chief State Department spokeswoman, is his pick to be the next ambassador to the United Nations, replacing Nikki Haley, as the president began announcing some of the personnel changes he was expected to make after the midterm elections.
Nauert was a Fox TV anchor before being picked in 2017 to be the State Department’s spokeswoman, and she will probably face skepticism from Senate Democrats for her lack of extensive political or diplomatic experience, which could delay her confirmation until 2019.
But she is well liked at the State Department and is known to have close ties at the White House, particularly with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner. For much of the past year, Nauert was rumored to be a possible replacement for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
In another personnel move, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, is expected to leave his post in the next few days, ending a tumultuous 16-month tenure still among the longest for a senior aide to Trump, two people with direct knowledge of the developments said Friday.
Kelly and Trump have grown weary of each other. But Trump, according to several senior administration officials and people close to him, has so far been unable to bring himself to personally fire a retired four-star general.
It is unclear who the replacement for Kelly would be. Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, is seen as a leading candidate. He is supported by Ivanka Trump and Kushner, who both serve as senior West Wing advisers and who, according to several officials, are trying to expand their influence internally and in Trump’s re-election campaign.
The choice of Barr was well received by Republicans as soon as it became known that he had emerged as permanent replacement for Sessions.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, predicted that Republicans would be able to secure the votes needed to confirm him – one of the highest potential hurdles for any Justice Department nominee given the ongoing special counsel investigation.
“He is the kind of person who could get confirmed,” he said. “I think it is going to be challenging in any event.”
But parts of his record are likely to be closely scrutinized by Democrats. Barr has criticized aspects of the Russia investigation, including suggesting that special counsel Robert Mueller hired too many prosecutors who had donated to Democratic campaigns.
Barr also defended Trump’s calls for a new criminal investigation into his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, including over a uranium mining deal the Obama administration approved when she was secretary of state.
“There is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation,” Barr told the New York Times last year. “Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation.”
Barr added then that he saw more basis for investigating the uranium deal than any supposed conspiracy between Trump’s associates and Russia.
“To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.
Barr has a “generally mainstream GOP and corporate” reputation, Norman L. Eisen, who served as special counsel for ethics and government overhaul under President Barack Obama, said Thursday.
But Eisen predicted that Barr would be vigorously vetted because of what he saw as blots on Barr’s record, including his push for scrutiny of the mining deal, involving a company called Uranium One.
Barr “has put forward the discredited idea that Hillary Clinton’s role in the Uranium One deal is more worthy of investigation than collusion between Trump and Russia,” Eisen wrote in a text message. “That is bizarre. And he was involved in the dubious George H.W. Bush end of term pardons that may be a precedent for even more illegitimate ones by Trump.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Friday that Democrats would carefully vet him.
“I will demand that Mr. Barr make a firm and specific commitment to protect the Mueller investigation, operate independently of the White House, and uphold the rule of law,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
Barr deserved particular scrutiny, the senator said, “in light of past comments suggesting Mr. Barr was more interested in currying favor with President Trump than objectively and thoughtfully analyzing law and facts.”
A graduate of George Washington University’s law school, Barr, 68, got his start in the 1970s working for the CIA and later worked in the Reagan White House before leaving for private practice.
In 1989, Bush appointed him to lead the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel, and later elevated him to deputy attorney general and then attorney general.
After the Bush administration, Barr spent most of his postgovernment career as the top lawyer for the telecommunications company that became Verizon, from which he retired in 2008. He later joined the Kirkland & Ellis law firm.
In a November 1992 speech, Barr put forward the ideal of an attorney general whose primary loyalty is to the rule of law, not to the president who appointed him – saying that he must provide “unvarnished, straight-fromthe-shoulder legal advice” with no regard to political considerations like what conclusions the White House might prefer.
“The unique position of the attorney general raises special considerations,” Barr said. “The attorney general’s oath to uphold the Constitution raises the question whether his duty lies ultimately with the president who appointed him or more abstractly with the rule of law. I said in my confirmation hearings, and have said several times since, that the attorney general’s ultimate allegiance must be to the rule of law.”
Still, Barr also said that in his experience, he confronted no conflicts between his duty to uphold the law and his policy allegiance to the president.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Barr developed a reputation as a proponent of a sweeping theory of the president’s constitutional authority to act without congressional permission or in defiance of statutes.
In July 1989, shortly after his appointment to the Office of Legal Counsel, Barr sent an apparently unsolicited 10-page memo to top agency and department lawyers across the executive branch urging vigilance in pushing back against ways in which Congress might try to intrude on what he saw as the rightful powers of the president.
The memo covered topics such as “attempts to gain access to sensitive executive branch information” and efforts to limit a president’s power to fire a subordinate official without a good cause.
“It is important that all of us be familiar with each of these forms of encroachment on the executive’s constitutional authority,” Barr wrote. “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved.”
President Trump speaks to reporters about planned changes to his staff while departing the White House Friday in Washington, D.C.