(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump may have found a new attorney general with an almost unique set of characteristics — an establishment Republican with unimpeachable credentials who’s also experienced in helping bury an investigation into a president’s allies.
William Barr, who Trump said Friday was his choice to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official, held the same job under President George H.W. Bush a quarter-century ago. Back then, he helped torpedo criminal prosecutions in the Iran-Contra affair by successfully advocating for Bush to issue a wave of pardons before leaving office.
While senior Republicans quickly praised Barr -- Senator Lindsey Graham called him “a man of the highest integrity” -- critics focused on his expansive views on presidential power and on those Iran-Contra pardons. That part of his track record may have been appealing to a president who regularly denounces Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and mocked his previous attorney general for refusing to rein it in.
Barr, too, has criticized the makeup of Mueller’s investigative team, supported further investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton, and backed Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, which set in motion Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller in the first place.
“The Senate must closely scrutinize this nominee, particularly in light of past comments suggesting Mr. Barr was more interested in currying favor with President Trump than objectively and thoughtfully analyzing law and facts,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said in a statement.
In 1992, an independent counsel’s investigation into allies of President Ronald Reagan led to indictments against a handful of top officials in the Iran-Contra affair, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. The scandal involved secret U.S. arms sales to Iran to finance covert arms sales to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua.
Bush, who was Reagan’s vice president, blamed the investigation in part for his loss for a second term to Democrat Bill Clinton, and after his defeat he pardoned six officials, including Weinberger, with Barr’s backing.
“There were some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound,” Barr said in a 2001 interview at the University of Virginia.
The pardons aborted Weinberger’s trial, and infuriated Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, who said they undermined “the principle that no man is above the law" and completed a "cover-up" of the affair including a conspiracy to lie to Congress and the public.
Trump has refused to rule out pardons for key figures in the Mueller probe, while Democrats have warned any pardons involved in the investigation, which could ultimately reach the president or his family, would be an abuse of power.
Barr won’t need Democratic votes for confirmation in a Senate that will have 53 Republicans when the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3. But he will have to walk a tightrope as he seeks to maintain the confidence of the president while assuring that at least 50 senators -- most of whom have backed Mueller’s probe -- vote aye.
Graham of South Carolina, who’s in line to head the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold confirmation hearings on Barr, has previously noted that the dangling of pardons to potential witnesses was part of the articles of impeachment drafted against Richard Nixon.
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri also praised Barr, saying in a statement, “He understands the job and will have the confidence of the Congress as well as the president.”
Last month, members of both parties expressed concern that Mueller be permitted to finish his probe when Trump ousted Jeff Sessions and named Matthew Whitaker -- who also has been vocal in criticizing Mueller’s inquiry -- to serve as acting attorney general.
Blumenthal of Connecticut, who also serves on the Judiciary panel, said Friday that he will demand that Barr “make a firm and specific commitment to protect the Mueller investigation, operate independently of the White House, and uphold the rule of law.”
In the past two years, Barr has taken public positions that align with some of Trump’s most controversial attacks.
Barr wrote in a May 2017 opinion piece that Trump was right to fire Comey.
Mueller, a Republican, headed the Justice Department’s criminal division when Barr was attorney general. But in July 2017, Barr told the Washington Post that he would have liked to see more political balance in the team of prosecutors that Mueller is using, citing those who contributed to Democratic politicians like Clinton.
“In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” Barr said. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”
And in November 2017, Barr told news outlets that the Justice Department should investigate any role Clinton may have played when President Barack Obama’s administration let a Russian-backed company purchase American uranium mines in 2010.
The deal, involving the purchase of a company called Uranium One, was cleared when Clinton was secretary of state, although she has said she played no role in the approval process. The so-called Uranium One controversy has become a rallying point for right-wing groups.
“Barr’s strange calls for the department to investigate fringe conspiracy theories involving the Clintons raise questions, both about his partisanship and judgment,” Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a Judiciary Committee member, said in a statement.
Barr also said it wasn’t necessarily inappropriate for the president to ask the department to launch specific investigations, as Trump has done repeatedly in his “lock her up” attacks on Clinton.
“The president is the chief executive and, if he believes there’s an area that requires an investigation, there’s nothing on its face wrong with that, there’s nothing per se wrong about that,” Barr told the Post.
Barr’s colleagues and supporters said none of this should be permitted to distract from his track record.
“Bill believes deeply in the rule of law, and that the rule of law applies without respect to place or station,” said Charles Cooper of Cooper & Kirk, who has worked with him in government and private law practice. “He reveres the Justice Department, and was then and will be committed to its important mission."
(Updates with Blunt quote in 13th paragraph. An earlier version misspelled Weinberger’s first name.)
--With assistance from Billy House and Greg Farrell.
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