William P. Barr wouldn’t be our first choice to be the nation’s top lawyer. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, it was clear his views on border security and law and order are hawkish, and his understanding of sentencing reform and mass incarceration is muddled and dated. There are a number of modern Justice Department issues (the use of consent decrees to get local police departments with a history of civil rights violations like Baltimore’s in line) in which he does not appear to be particularly well versed. Given President Donald Trump’s own predilections, none of that is surprising, of course. What was a little surprising was this inescapable conclusion: Mr. Barr believes in the rule of law and fully supports special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, no matter where it leads.
Over and over again, senators grilled Mr. Barr on matters of integrity, particularly regarding the Mueller probe, and over and over again, the former attorney general under George H.W. Bush gave the right answers. He has known Mr. Mueller for 30 years and has faith in him. He thinks highly of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and had no role in his recent decision to leave. He has promised President Trump nothing. He thought former AG Jeff Sessions probably did the right thing by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. And he wants Mr. Mueller’s eventual findings to be as transparent as possible — although he made no promise that everything will be made public.
This last response probably didn’t thrill Democrats on the committee who wanted to hear more than good intentions on accountability. But given Mr. Barr’s limited knowledge of Mr. Mueller’s findings (or even likely findings), this does not seem unreasonable. It actually came across as, dare we say, judicious when an inquiry touches on matters of national security. Certainly, there were not many, if any, instances during his testimony when Mr. Barr came across as a flunky to the president — politically aligned on border security perhaps but hardly a MAGA rally goer. Instead, he seemed greatly invested in the notion that the Justice Department’s historic independence is important to his nation’s welfare.
All of which suggests President Trump either has inner reserves of humility and faith in our system of justice (convincingly hidden to date) that he tapped when he nominated Mr. Barr, or somehow a man of genuine honor has somehow flown beneath the presidential radar. Had anyone but himself nominated Mr. Barr to succeed Jeff “Mr. Magoo” Sessions, Mr. Trump would surely have been tweeting his reaction to Tuesday’s proceedings in more typical fashion: “Mueller scandal IS a Witch Hunt. Blowhard Bill Barr is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG,” or something to that effect. In retrospect, the “Barr memo” — Mr. Barr’s much talked-about missive on how the firing of former FBI Director James Comey can’t support an obstruction of justice charge, which Democrats thought might disqualify Mr. Barr as AG, may have been the best thing to have happened to the Mueller probe. Could it be the president thought he was hiring a toady and got a member of the much-dreaded “Washington establishment” instead?
That widely-circulated Barr memo might have looked like a highly public audition for the AG job, but it may well have simply been a case of nerdy lawyer types sharing thoughts on a narrow issue of law. Mr. Barr was believable when he said he had no reason to seek out the post of top lawyer at this point in his life. He is 68 years old. And while there are a number of issues where we believe Mr. Barr’s views are wrong or dated or both, on the most important issue facing the office of attorney general — whether or not to allow the special counsel’s work to proceed unobstructed — he has passed the test. He deserves bipartisan support for confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Mr. Barr is not only qualified for the job, but, in the tradition of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus, he believes that that an attorney general not only serves the president, he serves the American people and their expectation that nobody is above the law.