President Donald Trump has certainly surrounded himself with plenty of incompetent and ethically challenged people. But in William Barr, he has nominated someone with a track record of integrity and experience to be the next attorney general.
Such a person is badly needed at the Justice Department. Not only has Trump repeatedly debased law enforcement, his actions also have left many Americans thinking the unthinkable — that the president not only benefited from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election but also is somehow beholden to its government.
No less than the FBI has entertained this thought. The New York Times reported Friday that the FBI started a counterintelligence inquiry in 2017 into whether Trump was — gulp! — acting as an agent of the Russian government.
SEN. WARNER: Barr’s nomination should be withdrawn
The outcome of that inquiry is unknown, and Trump denied on Monday that he ever worked on Russia’s behalf. But he has given Americans plenty of reason for suspicion, including his odd obsequiousness toward Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, his confiscation of notes and records from his meetings with Putin, his real estate dealings with Russians, and his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, leaving a vacuum for Russia and others to fill.
It is into this troubling context that Barr now drops as Trump’s pick to become the nation’s top law enforcement official and overseer of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry. This would be Barr’s second stint as attorney general, a position he ably held during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
At the very least, Barr would represent a huge upgrade over acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who is wholly ill-suited for the job.
At the Senate confirmation hearings that begin Tuesday, Barr’s first imperative must be an unequivocal defense of Mueller, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former FBI director whom Trump has attacked incessantly.
Barr states in prepared testimony that Mueller should be given a chance to finish his report, and that the report should be made public. This is a good start but is not sufficient. Mueller might plan further legal actions such as subpoenas, indictments and plea agreements. Barr needs to pledge that he would not interfere with those. He also needs to make abundantly clear that he would not fire Mueller.
Beyond these things, Barr needs to explain recent statements and writings defending the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and criticizing Mueller on the grounds that members of the special counsel’s team made political contributions to Hillary Clinton.
While some Democrats have urged that his nomination be withdrawn, this is too extreme. Barr has done nothing to disqualify himself and deserves a chance to make his case.
An attorney general can be hired and fired by the president, but ultimately he or she serves the Constitution and the rule of law. At this fraught time in the nation’s history, senators shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.
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