Mr. Barr’s stan­dard

His com­mit­ment to a Jus­tice Depart­ment free of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence may be put to the test.

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL -

IN HIS 1991 con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, C-SPAN noted on Fri­day, for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr de­clared that “noth­ing could be more de­struc­tive of our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, of the rule of law, or Depart­ment of Jus­tice as an in­sti­tu­tion, than any tol­er­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence with the en­force­ment of the law.” Now that Pres­i­dent Trump has nom­i­nated Mr. Barr to re­turn to the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s helm, the Se­nate and pub­lic must ask whether he will live by those words al­most three decades later.

Mr. Barr’s nom­i­na­tion comes as a re­lief. Rather than tap­ping a con­firmed Trump syco­phant such as for­mer New York mayor Rudolph W. Gi­u­liani (R), the pres­i­dent picked a Jus­tice Depart­ment vet­eran of un­doubted le­gal pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

Yet given Mr. Trump’s degra­da­tion of the ex­ec­u­tive branch; his past state­ments in­di­cat­ing he ex­pects the at­tor­ney gen­eral to pro­tect him per­son­ally; and the fact that fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors on Fri­day con­nected the pres­i­dent to a felony cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tion by his for­mer per­sonal lawyer, spe­cial scru­tiny of Mr. Barr’s com­mit­ment to Jus­tice Depart­ment in­de­pen­dence is es­sen­tial.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, Mr. Barr op­er­ated with ad­mirable au­ton­omy. In 2001, he re­vealed that he had in­sisted on nam­ing his own deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral rather than al­low the White House to in­stall some­one based on po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. He noted that his Jus­tice Depart­ment de­fended laws in court whether or not he thought they were proper (in con­trast to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fusal to de­fend the Af­ford­able Care Act). Mr. Barr over­saw fed­eral charges against the of­fi­cers in­volved in the Rod­ney King beat­ing, and he has boasted of the warm re­la­tions he main­tained with mem­bers of both par­ties in Congress.

On the other hand, though he ap­pointed an in­de­pen­dent coun­sel dur­ing his time at the Jus­tice Depart­ment, he has been a fierce critic of such spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Sen­a­tors should probe how in­volved he was in un­der­cut­ting an in­de­pen­dent coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Rea­gan-era Iran-con­tra scan­dal. His views do not prove he would im­prop­erly med­dle with spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but sen­a­tors should ex­plore them.

They should also in­sist that he re­veal what Mr. Trump asked him be­fore nom­i­nat­ing him. In 1991, Mr. Barr told sen­a­tors that the “only charge” Mr. Bush gave him “was to have a Depart­ment of Jus­tice that was run with pro­fes­sion­al­ism and in­tegrity.” What charge did Mr. Trump give him? And does he still be­lieve that re­peat­edly de­bunked Hil­lary Clin­ton “scan­dals” de­serve more Jus­tice Depart­ment scru­tiny than ques­tions about Trump cam­paign col­lu­sion with Rus­sia?

Sen­a­tors also should not lose sight of the fact that Mr. Barr would run a sprawl­ing depart­ment over­see­ing im­por­tant fed­eral pol­icy. What would be his pri­or­i­ties in en­forc­ing fed­eral vot­ing rights law? How would he ap­proach im­mi­gra­tion is­sues? Would he im­pose the out­moded get-tough-on-crime ethos of the 1990s Jus­tice Depart­ment? Would he, like re­cently fired at­tor­ney gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, take pres­sure off po­lice de­part­ments to re­form?

Mr. Barr said in 1991 that he wanted his legacy to be that “I up­held the law and that I left the Depart­ment of Jus­tice a more ef­fec­tive, stronger and a bet­ter in­sti­tu­tion.” If that is once again his aim, his nom­i­na­tion is wel­come.

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