WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed William Barr as attorney general Thursday, putting him in charge of a Justice Department conducting multiple investigations of the campaign and administration of a president who has been sharply critical of its leadership.
The largely party-line vote of 54-45 came despite concerns from some Democrats about how Barr planned to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr was at the Justice Department as the Senate voted. He was sworn in as the country’s 85th attorney general Thursday by Chief Justice John Roberts at the White House.
Barr is likely to be briefed on the Mueller inquiry soon after his swearing-in.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders called the confirmation “a major victory for justice and the rule of law.”
Barr steps into a difficult job as the country’s top law enforcement officer. President Donald Trump ousted his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in November after more than a year of criticism for recusing himself from the Russia investigation that the president calls a “witch hunt.” Trump complained to the newspaper The Hill in September that “I have no attorney general.”
Sessions’ interim replacement, Matthew Whitaker, came under fire from Democrats in Congress after he rejected a recommendation from department attorneys that he step aside from that case.
Barr, 68, is a widely respected Washington lawyer who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. He takes over an agency grappling with an epidemic of illegal drug overdoses and a crackdown on migrants who entered the USA illegally that separated thousands of children from their families.
“If America ever needed a steady hand at the Department of Justice, it is now,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Mr. Whitaker has done a good job as interim attorney general, but we’re looking for a new person to bring stability, improve morale and be a steady hand – mature leadership – at a time when our country is very much divided.”
Though it is customary for new attorneys general to walk the halls at the department to greet staffers, Barr will forgo that tradition, a concession to his low-key demeanor and the difficult work ahead.
Some of the most delicate questions he faces could be those posed by Mueller’s investigation and a separate criminal inquiry into illegal payments in the final months of the 2016 campaign to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
“Multiple criminal investigations loom over the Trump presidency,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “These investigations may ultimately define it. And the president has reacted to them the only way he knows how: to attack relentlessly. That includes attacking investigators, witnesses, even the justice system itself.”
Barr has given little indication of how he would handle either case.
He told lawmakers that he would allow Mueller to complete his investigation and that he would resist outside interference in investigators’ work. He also holds expansive views of presidential power and wrote a memo questioning the legal theory that might permit Mueller to conclude that the president tried to obstruct the Russia inquiry. Barr suggested the public might never learn all the details of what the special counsel has found.
Barr told senators at his confirmation hearing last month that he would release as much information as possible about Mueller’s findings. But he cited a Justice Department policy to avoid publishing derogatory information about people who aren’t charged criminally.
The department’s Office of Legal Counsel has taken the position that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and several Democrats worried that the combination of those two things could lead Barr to keep confidential parts of the report dealing with Trump.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she opposed Barr because of his expansive view of executive authority.
“Taken to its natural conclusion, Mr. Barr’s analysis squarely places this president above the law,” Feinstein said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Trump has long had a fraught relationship with the Justice Department. Not long after he took office, he fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates. He fired the FBI director, James Comey, and mocked his successor, Andrew McCabe.
Barr arrived at the Justice Department’s headquarters on the same day McCabe revealed that senior department officials, alarmed by Comey’s dismissal, had discussed whether the vice president and Trump’s Cabinet would be willing to remove him from office. The department on Thursday disputed McCabe’s characterization of the discussions.
McCabe, who was fired for misleading internal investigators, confirmed that he had opened an obstruction of justice investigation of Trump. McCabe told “60 Minutes” he did that to ensure the investigation of Russian election interference would be “on solid ground.”
Trump had asked Barr to join the legal team defending him in the Russia investigation. Barr declined, telling lawmakers, “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.”
Now Barr takes on that case and considerably more.
“You seem like a rational person,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Barr during his confirmation hearing, then rattled through the criticisms Trump has heaped on federal law enforcement. “Why do you want this job?”
“Well, because I love the department and all its components including the FBI,” Barr replied. “I think they’re critical institutions that are essential to preserving the rule of law, which is the the heartbeat of this country.”
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