The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, ushering in what the administration has portrayed as a refreshing new era in the Justice Department.
Senators approved Barr's nomination 54 to 45. Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Doug Jones, and Joe Manchin all voted in favor of Barr, while Sen. Rand Paul was the only Republican to oppose his nomination, citing concerns about his views on surveillance and criminal justice reform.
Barr will be sworn in at the White House at 4:45 p.m. with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administering the oath, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
It’s not clear what Trump or the GOP get by changing the guard. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was pushed out in November after Trump and his online mobs chastised him as an insubordinate weakling for recusing himself from the investigation into Trump’s possible ties to Russia. The Justice Department’s top seat has been held in the interim by acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. (The Justice Department didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Whitaker will return to his prior role as chief of staff to the attorney general now that Barr has been confirmed).
At his Senate hearing on Jan. 15, Barr, who served as attorney general in the early 1990s under President George H. W. Bush, revealed that he is, in key regards, a familiar reflection of Sessions in terms of how he would actually operate the Justice Department.
Barr expressed support for the border wall, indicated he doesn’t necessarily plan to defend Obamacare, said he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion (while noting federal lawyers don’t currently challenge the decision), argued LGBT workers aren’t protected under current federal law, and contended sanctuary cities pose a threat and should be punished.
He meanwhile made arguments that immigrants are “abusing the asylum system” while he scuttled concerns about racial disparities by law enforcement. He also took up one of Sessions’ favorite crusades: opposing the ability of a lower court judges to block federal policies nationwide. “I'd like to see these universal injunctions challenged,” Barr said.
Most critically, though, Barr argued the the Russia probe must proceed.
“I will not permit partisan politics, personal interests, or any other improper consideration to interfere with this or any other investigation," Barr said in his opening remarks before rephrasing the sentiment dozens more ways through the day.
Asked if he would fire special counsel Robert Mueller at Trump’s request without “good cause,” Barr assured senators, "I would not carry out that instruction.” (Mueller previously worked for Barr at DOJ and their families remain “friends,” Barr told senators).
When asked about cases that could implicate the president — like one involving his former fixer Michael Cohen — Barr added, “If someone tried to stop a bona fide lawful investigation, to cover up wrongdoing, I would resign.”
Although Trump has insisted the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” created by Democrats trying to perpetuate a “hoax,” Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt.”
Barr has made a few gestures that would please Trump, such as publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2017 that defended the president’s decision to fire former FBI director James Comey.
Barr had also volunteered a memo to senior Justice Department officials before he was in the running for attorney general, arguing that aspects of the department’s investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia in the 2016 election was “fatally misconceived.”
Barr also supports elongating the arms of executive power. He’s suggested Trump can investigate his political rivals, like Hillary Clinton’s role in a 2010 uranium deal with Russia.
Yet if Barr’s testimony is to be believed, Trump will still end up with a Justice Department continuing on the same trajectory of policy, litigation, and the Russia probe — but now, Trump won’t have Sessions as his whipping boy.
Sessions should have been conservative hero. He gutted progressive policies and crafted the administration's immigration agenda: detaining families, punishing sanctuary cities, ramping up border prosecutions, and more.
But when he talked about Sessions’ replacement, Trump had told reporters on Dec. 7 that Barr “was my first choice since day one.”
Democrats — including those who’d voted against Sessions — had predicted a smooth ride for Barr. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary, said in a video interview with Reuters in January that Barr was “answering questions and, I think, doing well” in the confirmation process.
Asked whether Barr would have an “easy road” to Senate confirmation, she added, “Oh, I think so.”
Barr has some differences from Sessions, at least in in principle, like supporting a federal law banning on anti-LGBT discrimination. Barr, however, doesn’t think current federal law protects LGBT workers — and in that regard, he and Sessions agree (even if many courts have ruled the opposite).
Both Barr and Sessions think marijuana should remain illegal — though Barr said he’d tolerate cannabis businesses in states where it’s legal. Sessions had threatened to crack down, though he never did.
Civil rights groups had adamantly opposed Barr’s nomination, much as they opposed Sessions when was he was nominated.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 16, “William Barr did not and does not recognize the racially discriminatory impact of our criminal justice system policies.”
Johnson cited a 1992 interview in which Barr said he thinks the criminal justice system doesn’t treat black and white people differently. When asked about the interview by Sen. Cory Booker in his confirmation hearing, Barr said there was broader context to the statement. “I said there's no doubt that there are places where there is racism still in the system, but I said overall, I thought, that as a system it's working.”