WASHINGTON — William Barr is all but guaranteed to become President Donald Trump’s next attorney general, after clearing a procedural hurdle Tuesday with the support of not just Republicans, but a few Democrats as well.
The 55-44 vote to advance Barr’s nomination comes after weeks in which Democrats sounded alarm bells about his previous statements regarding special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Trump and his alleged ties to Russia, including a memo Barr wrote last year questioning whether Mueller would be overstepping the law by investigating potential obstruction of justice.
Of the Democrats, only Sens. Doug Jones, D-Ala., Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., supported Barr’s nomination Tuesday, while Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the only Republican to oppose it.
The vote suggests that Barr’s confirmation vote will proceed smoothly, despite a rocky few weeks in which Democrats questioned his fitness to oversee Mueller’s probe.
During his confirmation hearing process, Barr refused to commit to release Mueller’s full and unchanged report to Congress and the public, or publish the changes he made to it so that people could note the differences. He also refused to promise to heed whatever advice career Justice Department ethics officials gave him about whether to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s probe, given his stated positions about it.
Barr, who previously served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, has a track record that breaks with Democratic Party positions in other areas, particularly concerning criminal justice reform.
He oversaw a crackdown on drug crimes during the 1990s by instituting harsh punishments that last year’s criminal justice reform sought to mitigate. He has promised, if confirmed, to implement the new bills and explained that in his prior tenure as attorney general, he was doing what he thought best at the time.
Paul, the lone Republican to vote against Barr’s confirmation, told Politico that he did so because Barr has been “the chief advocate for warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens,” in particular, the Patriot Act.
But Barr’s unwillingness to give lawmakers guarantees about how he will shepherd the Mueller probe through what is expected to be its final stages proved the ultimate sticking point for most Democrats, the vast majority of whom refused to support his nomination Tuesday.
“I have serious doubts about this nominee’s independence and willingness to stand up for rule of law,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The President’s major concern in choosing a new attorney general will be to choose someone who will shield him from the special counsel’s investigation. To me, Mr. Barr’s unsolicited memo looks much like a job application to try to appeal to the President on those qualifications.”
Republicans pushed back on that assertion following the vote.
“If you think William P. Barr has been auditioning for this job, you really haven’t been paying much attention to how this whole thing came out,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. “Mr. Barr will make sure Mr. Mueller can finish his job without political interference. He said that, I believe that — that’s the way this movie has to end.”
While Tuesday’s vote was procedural, it can nonetheless be taken as a barometer of how the Senate is expected to vote for Barr in his final confirmation vote. Under rules that the Senate adopted in 2013 under Democratic leadership, only a simple majority of the Senate is needed to confirm a Cabinet-level nominee such as Barr. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in the Senate, 53-47.
Once confirmed, Barr will replace Matthew Whitaker, former attorney general Jeff Sessions’ former chief of staff, who took over the Justice Department in an unorthodox interim appointment just days after the midterm elections.
Whitaker, who had previously publicly called for the Mueller probe to be restricted or even defunded, has had a rocky tenure, punctuated by speculation from congressional Democrats that he may have taken steps to block or inform on the Mueller probe to Trump or his lawyers. Justice Department ethics officials had recommended Whitaker recuse himself from the probe, but he refused.
During congressional testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Whitaker denied having interfered with Mueller’s probe at all during his stewardship of the DOJ.