William Barr, a former U.S. Attorney General and a conservative Kirkland & Ellis lawyer, will return to head the Justice Department, stepping in to oversee the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election as it appears to near its end.
Barr was confirmed Thursday afternoon by a 54-45 vote in the U.S. Senate. Three Democratic senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Doug Jones of Alabama—joined the Republican majority to approve Barr’s nomination. Only one Republican—Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—broke from GOP ranks to oppose Barr’s bid.
Barr was nominated to head the Justice Department by President Donald Trump in December following the forced resignation of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Since then, Matthew Whitaker has served as acting attorney general—even as his own installation atop the Justice Department became mired in controversy and drew challenges in federal courts.
Barr is expected to bring a new team with him to the Justice Department. CNN reported Wednesday that the top contender to be Barr’s deputy is Jeffrey Rosen, a former Kirkland & Ellis senior partner who currently serves as deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation. If Rosen were selected and confirmed by the Senate, he would replace Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is expected to leave the Justice Department once special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation ends.
Barr is expected to take the helm of the special counsel probe, overseeing an investigation he has been accused of criticizing. During his January confirmation hearing, Barr vowed to consult the department’s career ethics officials on whether he would need to recuse from the probe. But, he told senators, the final decision on recusal would be his to make.
During his nomination, there was little question about Barr’s qualifications for the post. Before he was the attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Barr previously served as a deputy attorney general and headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Still, most Democrats have opposed his nomination, largely pointing a memo Barr sent to Justice Department officials and members of Trump’s personal legal team last June. In the memo, Barr described a possible obstruction of justice inquiry into the president as “fatally misconceived.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has described Barr’s letter as “disqualifying.”
Democrats have also expressed dissatisfaction over Barr’s refusal to commit to the full release of Mueller’s findings to the public, once the special counsel’s work has concluded.
Pressed at his hearing about the fate of a final Mueller report, Barr vowed to “provide as much transparency” as possible in sharing the special counsel’s findings with lawmakers and the public. But the nominee’s responses also left open the possibility that he would only release his summary of Mueller’s findings to the public, rather than releasing the special counsel’s own prepared report.
“I am going to make as much information available as I can consistent with the rules and regulations that are part of the special counsel regulations,” Barr said during his hearing.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, who voted for Barr’s confirmation 28 years ago, but voted against his nomination Thursday, said this week that Barr’s responses “could lay the groundwork for potentially no transparency at all.”
At the same time, some of Barr’s defenders have observed that the nominee could not commit to full disclosure of Mueller’s findings. Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University’s law school, told senators last month that the nominee could not commit in advance to releasing information he had not yet reviewed, in part because some of those findings could include grand jury or privileged information he would be precluded from disclosing.