The Senate confirmed William Barr as U.S. attorney general, putting him in charge of a department battered by partisan acrimony and confronting him with fundamental decisions on the future of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The confirmation vote of 54-45 on Thursday gave the 68-year-old attorney a second stint in the job as the nation’s No. 1 law enforcement officer that he previously held in the 1990s.
While that will make him a major figure on issues from immigration to antitrust policy, one of the corporate lawyer’s first decisions will be whether to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s politically explosive probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Donald Trump or any of his associates conspired in the operation.
Barr refused in his confirmation hearing last month to commit to recuse himself, saying he’d seek the advice of career ethics officials. Democrats expressed concern about Barr’s acknowledgment that he’s had “general conversations” with Vice President Mike Pence regarding the investigation. They also cited a memo Barr sent to the Justice Department last year criticizing Mueller for looking into President Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey as possible obstruction of justice.
Trump heaped frequent ridicule on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation that Trump and House Republicans regularly call a “witch hunt.” Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who Trump appointed after ousting Sessions in November, rejected the informal recommendation of a Justice Department ethics officer that he recuse himself for his past criticism of Mueller’s investigation.
Whitaker and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and has supervised his operations, are expected to leave the Justice Department soon.
While some Democrats have criticized Barr’s expansive view of presidential power, developed over a career that included serving as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general from 1991 to 1993, Republican supporters emphasized his extensive experience.
“If America ever needed a steady hand at the Department of Justice it is now,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday. “We’re looking for a new person to bring stability and improve morale” and “to be a steady hand at a time that our country is very much divided.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement after the confirmation vote that “while I opposed Bill Barr’s nomination, it’s my hope that he’ll remember that he is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also put Barr on notice.
“Now that William Barr has been confirmed, he should be on notice that if under his leadership the Department of Justice continues the unconstitutional policies and practices of his predecessor, the ACLU will see him in court. The attorney general’s job is to enforce the law for all, and we will hold him to it,” ACLU legal director David Cole said Thursday.
If Barr takes charge of Mueller’s investigation, he will have to decide what to do with his final report, which will explain his decisions to prosecute or decline filing charges.
During the confirmation hearing, Barr — who described Mueller as a longtime close friend — refused to commit to sharing the special counsel’s findings with Congress and the public.
He said regulations call for Mueller’s report to be confidential, and “the report that goes public would be a report by the attorney general.” He also suggested he might exclude criticism of Trump from any such public report in light of the Justice Department’s policy that a president can’t be indicted while in office.
“If you’re not going to indict someone, then you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person,” he said.
Read more: Barr Could Block Muller Report Release Bat at a Cost
Graham said Justice Department regulations authorizing special counsels will require notification to the Senate and House Judiciary panels at the end of the probe if Mueller is prevented from pursuing any specific action.
Graham said he also expects Barr to examine whether Justice Department or FBI officials abused surveillance and intelligence powers while investigating Trump and his campaign, a theme pursued by Republicans who contend that anti-Trump bias tainted the Russia investigation in its early phases.
Other issues that might require early attention from Barr include whether the department issues a legal opinion about declaring a national emergency along the southern border — which Trump has indicated he may invoke to shift funds for his border wall — and whether to play a role in reviewing a proposed merger between T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint Corp.
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Barr is a former general counsel for one of their rivals, Verizon Communications Inc., and he has a history of assailing government regulation and corporate enforcement.