WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Friday he had chosen former U.S. Attorney General William Barr to once again lead the Justice Department, a role that would put him in charge of the federal probe into Russian election interference.
If confirmed by the Senate, Barr would take over from Matthew Whitaker, who has been serving in an acting capacity since Trump forced out Jeffrey Sessions a month ago. Whitaker had been Sessions’ chief of staff.
Barr was “my first choice from day one,” and “a terrific man, a terrific person, a brilliant man,” Trump said, speaking to reporters outside the White House.
Barr, a lawyer who was previously attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under the late President George H.W. Bush, has defended Trump’s controversial decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 when Comey was leading the Russia probe.
After Comey’s firing, Special Counsel Robert Mueller took over that investigation, which includes any possible collusion between Moscow and Trump’s 2016 election campaign, and any potential obstruction of justice. The Russia probe has long infuriated Trump, who calls it a witch hunt and who has denied any collusion or any obstruction of justice.
Barr has said there is more reason to investigate potential wrongdoing by Trump’s campaign opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, than there is to probe any potential collusion.
Mueller, a Republican, was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Barr has said political donations show Mueller’s team of professional prosecutors tilt uncomfortably to the left. On Twitter, Trump calls them “17 Angry Dems.”
“I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group,” Barr told the Washington Post in July 2017.
As attorney general, Barr would have ultimate responsibility for the Russia probe, unless he recuses himself. Sessions recused himself from overseeing the investigation.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Moscow worked to influence the election and tip it in Trump’s favor. Russia has denied any interference.
Barr’s comments on Mueller and Clinton could stir opposition from Senate Democrats, but the nomination will almost certainly not come up for a vote until next year. Republicans will control the chamber with a 53-47 majority in the new Congress convening in January.
“I do think he’s worthy of consideration. I am concerned he has said some negative things about the Special Counsel’s office and some of the prosecutors he had in place,” Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar told MSNBC on Thursday after Barr’s name surfaced.
Klobuchar is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the nomination.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post last year, Barr argued that Comey usurped the authority of top Justice Department officials when he announced the outcome of an FBI probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, and that Trump was right in firing him.
At the time of Comey’s announcement, both Clinton and Trump were candidates for president. When Trump fired Comey, the initial reason given by the White House was his poor handling of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails.
Barr, however, did not attack the Russia probe itself, which he said was being conducted with a thoroughness that appeared lacking in the Clinton email investigation.
“Comey’s removal simply has no relevance to the integrity of the Russian investigation as it moves ahead,” Barr wrote.
Comey said in 2016, after a year-long FBI investigation into the email issue, that while Clinton had been careless in her handling of her emails the agency was not recommending charges. Clinton expressed regret for her decision to use a private server but said she violated no rules.
Barr has expressed sympathy for Trump’s calls to take a second look at whether Clinton may have broken the law, telling the Washington Post in November 2017: “I do think that there are things that should be investigated that haven’t been investigated.”
That same month, he told the New York Times he thought there was more reason to investigate Clinton for any role she may have played in approving a uranium deal when she was secretary of state than any potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
“To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Tim Ahmann and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry