At first blush this news struck me as bizarre. After thinking it through, it’s … still strange, if maybe not quite bizarre.
Who knew Bush 41 nostalgia might eventually leak into POTUS’s cabinet choices?
Former attorney general William P. Barr is President Trump’s leading candidate to be nominated to lead the Justice Department — a choice that could be made in coming days as the agency presses forward with a probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to multiple people familiar with the deliberations.
Barr, 68, a well-respected Republican lawyer who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under then-President George H.W. Bush, has emerged as a favorite candidate of a number of Trump administration officials, including senior lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office, these people said. Two people familiar with the discussions said the president has told advisers in recent days that he plans to nominate Barr.
One person familiar with the discussions cautioned that while Barr is the leading candidate, the decision is not final and the president could decide to pick someone else.
How on earth did William Barr emerge from a field packed with Trump cronies like Chris Christie and Pam Bondi? The entire point of kicking Sessions out, I thought, was to replace him with a loyalist who would drop the axe on Mueller when the president gave the order. Instead suddenly he’s on the brink of nominating a well-respected establishment lawyer whose legacy is bound up with a different president, the quintessential establishmentarian (and very un-Trump-like) George H.W. Bush. What reason does POTUS have to believe that Barr wouldn’t be at least as protective of Mueller as Rod Rosenstein has been, if not more so? Imagine the media pressure Barr would face during a showdown between Mueller and Trump to do what his newly sainted old boss would have done, not what his new boss wants him to do. Very strange.
But maybe not bizarre. The WSJ profiled Trump’s leading AG candidates last month and noted that one of Barr’s deputies at Bush’s DOJ was — ta da — Pat Cipollone, a.k.a. Trump’s new White House counsel. As WaPo notes, it’s the White House counsel’s office that seems to be leading the charge for Barr. Sounds like Cipollone is using his influence to land his old boss a job. And WaPo points out that Barr has taken some Trump-friendly positions on Russiagate, saying at one point that it was understandable that James Comey would be fired over Emailgate and that Mueller’s team should have had more political “balance” given all the donations they’ve made to Democrats. Trump might have been told that and concluded that Barr will ride herd on Mueller. If he does, it’ll be a political master stroke inasmuch as Barr’s actions would be much harder to attribute to rank cronyism than, say, Attorney General Christie’s would.
But what if he doesn’t? Barr isn’t a known quantity to Trump the way Christie is. There’s no telling what he’d do if the president is subpoenaed or if he’s told to fire Mueller (or whether he’d release Mueller’s report to the public once he receives it). If he sided with Mueller on either point and Trump fired him, it would make Trump’s actions look even more illegitimate. There’s enormous backfire potential here, even more so than there was with Sessions. Why would Trump risk it? Has he concluded that it’s impossible for him to get a crony confirmed, even with a slightly redder Senate in January?
Maybe there’s another reason to nominate Barr that’s influencing Trump. In reading up on him this afternoon I ran across this story from 1991, during his first confirmation hearing for AG:
Atty. Gen.-designate William P. Barr, revealing his view on abortion for the first time, said Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion was wrongly decided and should be overturned…
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, seemed startled by Barr’s answer to the question on “a woman’s right to choose” that was asked by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).
Biden, who noted he did not agree with Barr, said the nominee’s response was “the first candid answer” he had heard on the supersensitive question–one that judicial nominees traditionally refuse to answer. “It’s astounding to me,” Biden said. “You should be complimented.”
Biden’s majority-Democrat Judiciary Committee approved Barr unanimously, an unthinkable result in 2018 notwithstanding Barr’s testimony later that he would follow Roe as the law of the land unless and until it was overturned by the Supreme Court. If in fact Barr ends up as AG, that episode will be held against Uncle Joe by progressives in the 2020 primaries as yet another disturbing deviation from leftist orthodoxy. Stories have circulated for months, meanwhile, that Trump has (probably correctly) concluded that Biden is the most formidable potential opponent for him in the next election given his appeal to the Rust Belt. By nominating Barr, Trump is going to make liberals think about Biden’s endorsement of an anti-Roe figure at the head of the DOJ in the early 90s.
Exit question: What happened to Makan Delrahim’s chances at becoming AG? His name was kicked around a few days ago. Being of Iranian ancestry, elevating him would help POTUS quiet down some of the criticism that his cabinet isn’t racially diverse. The one little wrinkle is that Delrahim’s family came to the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 — that is, they were refugees. Would that have been a political asset or liability to Trump as he goes about trying to make it harder for migrants at the border to gain access to the U.S. on asylum grounds?