The nominee to be attorney general has backed some of the president’s worst impulses on the Russia inquiry.
Not only has Mr. Barr already come perilously close to reassuring Mr. Trump that the president did not obstruct justice by trying to derail the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with Russia to corrupt the 2016 election, and that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, was overreaching, but he also has a long history of advancing an aggressive, expansive conception of presidential power.
He has made the case that a president can resist congressional oversight — a convenient position for Mr. Trump, but a concerning one for the country, now that Democrats are in charge of the House. He’s evenseen no problem with the president investigating a political opponent, saying there would be more validity in investigating Hillary Clinton for a uranium deal the government approved while she was secretary of state — which she had nothing to do with — than there was in investigating whether Mr. Trump conspired with Russia.
This theory of executive power has long been prized in conservative legal circles. But it will only empower a chief executive who has fought oversight since his first days in office and has rued the day that the special counsel was appointed after his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Mr. Barr cast further doubts about his appointment when he freelanced a memorandum to the Trump administration saying that the steps the president has continually taken to stymie a criminal probe he’s detested — firing the F.B.I. director James Comey, threatening to pardon associates who might cooperate with Mr. Mueller, or even using his “authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding” — were constitutionally legitimate. “Mueller’s obstruction theory,” he wrote, “would do lasting damage to the presidency.”
Given these past statements, it would be best if Mr. Barr, too, recused himself. But with the impending departure of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller and oversaw his investigation after Mr. Sessions’s recusal, it’s not clear if the inquiry would be any better protected in other hands. There should be tremendous pressure on Mr. Barr to allow Mr. Mueller free rein, both in investigating and in writing a final report.
Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Barr assured him that he doesn’t think the special counsel is conducting a witch hunt and that he’d aim for transparency whenever Mr. Mueller delivers to him a final report on the special counsel investigation.
But is that assurance enough? And if Justice Department ethics officials conclude that Mr. Barr ought to cede supervision of the probe to avoid the “appearance” of bias, as they concluded in the case of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, will Mr. Barr simply ignore them, as did Mr. Whitaker?
Mr. Barr recommended that President George H.W. Bush pardon Reagan administration officials convicted or implicated in the Iran-contra scandal, including former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Would he object to Mr. Trump pardoning his former national security adviser Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort, whom Mr. Mueller has accused of giving polling data to an associate connected to Russian intelligence? Mr. Trump has certainly considered it.
But it is Mr. Barr’s approach to the investigation of the president that demands the most scrutiny. Under his view that the president controls Justice Department functions and can “start or stop a law enforcement proceeding,” he may well be committed to the idea that the president can do as he wishes with the Mueller investigation. Would he be willing to resign if Mr. Trump tried to shut that investigation down, as Attorney General Elliot Richardson did when President Richard Nixon ordered him to fire the Watergate special prosecutor?
At the very least, Mr. Barr can commit to standing up for the integrity of the office he aspires to hold. Despite the partial government shutdown, Mr. Mueller’s investigators continue to move ahead. And federal prosecutors in New York, Virginia and Washington remain hard at work, bringing cases that have arisen out of Mr. Mueller’s probe or that otherwise incriminate subjects at the center of it.
This commitment to justice serves as an example to all and ought to go on unimpeded.
Mr. Barr spent two years as attorney general under former Republican President George H.W. Bush. One of the people who served under Mr. Barr during that time was Pat Cipollone, whom Mr. Trump named White House counsel in October.Mr. Barr has also called for “more balance” among the prosecutors working for Mr. Mueller, noting that some of them have made political contributions to Democrats. Mr. Mueller is a registered Republican. Mr. Barr also publicly supported Mr. Trump’s call last year for the Justice Department to investigate 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, saying there was “nothing inherently wrong” with such a call. Presidents typically avoid public calls for investigations to avoid the appearance of interfering with matters of justice... As Mr. Trump mulled his choices for the job, some of the president’s advisers opposed Mr. Barr, saying he was the sort of establishment figure the president often derides on the campaign trail... Mr. Whitaker also had told CNN that if Mr. Sessions were succeeded by an acting attorney general, he could imagine a scenario in which that person would reduce Mr. Mueller’s budget “so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt.”