Who Is William Barr, Trump’s Pick for Attorney General

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
December 7, 2018 Updated: December 9, 2018

President Donald Trump said he will nominate former Attorney General William Barr to return to lead the Justice Department.

“He was my first choice from day one,” Trump said, upon leaving the White House for Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 7.

Trump said he hoped for a quick confirmation of Barr by the Senate, calling the man “one of the most respected jurists in the country” and “a terrific man.”

Barr would replace Jeff Sessions, who resigned at Trump’s request a day after the November midterm elections. The office is being held in the interim by Sessions’s former chief of staff Matthew Whitaker. Barr would inherit a department that under Sessions’ leadership sought to implement Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration and operations against human trafficking, drug trafficking, and transnational gangs, particularly MS-13.

He would also oversee the special counsel investigation into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election. Recently, there have been signs that the investigation is nearing its end after a year and a half and a slew of indictments, none of which have substantiated the allegations.

Who’s Barr?

It’s been decades since Barr served in the federal government. He was first recruited to join the Justice Department in 1989 by the late President George H.W. Bush. He served as Bush’s attorney general from 1991 to 1993. He served under Bush before that, however. After finishing his graduate studies, Barr joined the CIA between 1973-1977 and toward the end of that period, “occasionally helped write testimony for the director,” who, at the time, was Bush, The Washington Post reported in 1991.

It was Barr who, at the onset of Bush’s presidency, “provided legal reasoning used by the administration to justify the invasion of Panama and the arrest of Manuel Antonio Noriega,” the paper wrote. “He also wrote an opinion that states the administration has the power to arrest terrorists overseas, even in violation of international law.”

“The most radical period I had probably was when I was sort of a moderate Republican,” Barr once quipped to an associate, according to the paper.

Trump would find Barr to be a conservative, too. During his 1991 confirmation hearing, Barr said he disagreed with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that constrained the states’ ability to ban or limit abortion. He said, in his opinion, the right to privacy put forth in the Constitution doesn’t cover abortion, and that the matter should be left for states to decide, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.

On Mueller

In his more recent opinions, Barr defended Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in 2017, which prompted the hiring of special counsel Robert Mueller.

“It was widely recognized that Comey’s job was in jeopardy, regardless of who won the election,” Barr wrote in a May 12, 2017, Washington Post op-ed.

Barr sided with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who recommended that Trump fire Comey for overstepping his authority. In July 2016, Comey exonerated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of criminally mishandling classified information, a step that should have been left to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch or, if her impartiality was in question, her deputy, Rosenstein argued.

Barr agreed.

“I think it is quite understandable that the administration would not want an FBI director who did not recognize established limits on his powers,” he said.

Barr also seemed to question the grounds for hiring Mueller, who took over the Russia probe from the FBI after Comey’s departure.

“The notion that the integrity of this investigation depends on Comey’s presence just does not hold water,” Barr said, pointing out that the probe was run by lower-ranking agents and overseen not by Comey, but by Rosenstein and Dana Boente, then-acting head of the department’s National Security Division.

After Mueller established his team, Barr criticized the fact that many of Mueller’s lawyers donated to politicians, and overwhelmingly to Democratic ones.

“In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” he said, The Washington Post reported in July 2017. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”

Regarding the merits of the investigation itself, Barr thought there was more basis for probing the Uranium One controversy than any supposed Trump-Russia collusion, he told The New York Times in 2017.

“To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” Barr said.

Uranium One

In 2010, the Russian-owned firm Rosatom gained control of 20 percent of U.S. uranium reserves by purchasing a majority stake in the company Uranium One. The deal was approved by multiple agencies in the Obama administration, including the State Department, which was headed by Clinton at the time.

At the time, the Mueller-led FBI was aware that Russian authorities operated a large-scale campaign to blackmail and extort U.S. companies connected to uranium production and transportation. The agency had a source working in the uranium industry that provided evidence of bribery and corruption.

In addition, companies linked to Rosatom gave millions to the Clinton Foundation. Former President Bill Clinton got a $500,000 speaking fee from Renaissance Capital, an investment firm with an interest in the Uranium One deal and ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At the time, Mueller failed to investigate potential criminal activity of Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and Rosatom, according to documents that were reportedly collected by a former FBI contractor worker Dennis Nathan Cain and provided to the Justice Department’s Inspector General.


While Barr’s past comments might stir opposition from Senate Democrats, the nomination will almost certainly not come up for a vote until next year. Republicans will control the chamber with a 53-47 majority in the new Congress convening in January.

“I do think he’s worthy of consideration. I am concerned he has said some negative things about the special counsel’s office and some of the prosecutors he had in place,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told MSNBC on Dec. 6, after Barr’s name surfaced.

Klobuchar is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nomination.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Update: The article has been updated with information regarding Barr’s views on the special counsel investigation and the Uranium One affair.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.