Donald Trump nominates a new attorney-general

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AFTER enduring a week of encomiums to George H.W. Bush, President Donald Trump on December 7th nominated one of his late predecessor’s former attorney-generals, William Barr, to reprise that role. Though more spikily partisan than Mr Bush might have liked, Mr Barr is a highly-regarded lawyer who, if confirmed by the Senate, would be expected to uphold the law and integrity of the Department of Justice. His nomination therefore looks like good news.

Mr Barr, who served as attorney-general from 1991 to 1993, has raised Democratic hackles by criticising Robert Mueller for hiring prosecutors who have donated to Democratic campaigns. He has also defended Mr Trump’s demand for an investigation into Hillary Clinton, his defeated Democratic opponent, including over a uranium mining deal that was approved while she was secretary of state. Neither position appears to holds any water.

There is no reason to suspect the special counsel of any partisan bias, or to make past political affiliation a criterion for public service. Mr Trump and several of his children have donated to Democratic candidates; Mr Mueller is a registered Republican. Nor is there any reason to add to the many politically-motivated investigations of Mrs Clinton. The Obama administration’s decision not to block the sale of 51% of a Toronto-based Uranium miner, Uranium One, to a state-controlled Russian firm in 2010 was somewhat controversial. Uranium One’s operations in Wyoming were responsible for around 20% of America’s uranium production. But there is no reason to think Mrs Clinton was instrumental in that decision—much less, as conservative media declared during the 2016 election campaign, that she waved the deal through in return for a corrupt donation to her family’s charitable foundation.

Yet there is a big difference between Mr Barr’s partisan musings and the naked assaults on the rule of law recommended by Mr Trump’s acting attorney-general, Matt Whitaker. A failed former Republican Senate candidate from Iowa, Mr Whitaker had previously suggested Mr Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Mr Trump’s campaign team and Russia was a “lynch mob”. He also suggested Mr Trump might derail it by starving the investigation of funds. After Mr Trump sacked his former attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, he appointed Mr Whitaker over the Senate-appointed deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein. Given that Mr Sessions’s offence, in Mr Trump’s eyes, was his failure to have prevented the Mueller investigation being launched, it was a fair bet he had picked Mr Whitaker to try to weaken or end it. 

It is similarly possible Mr Trump was attracted to Mr Barr by his partisan comments on Mr Mueller and Mrs Clinton. But unlike Mr Whitaker, who has an undistinguished background as a lawyer and businessman, Mr Barr also has heavyweight credentials for the job. He was notable, as attorney-general, for having pushed an expansive view of presidential power. For example, he argued that Mr Bush had a right to deploy American troops to the Middle East, for what would become the Persian Gulf War, without Congress’s say-so. This remains a controversial area. Yet there has never been any question about Mr Barr’s commitment to the rule of law. In a speech delivered in 1992 he stressed that upholding it–not pleasing the president—was the attorney-general’s primary responsibility.

That may not be what Mr Trump is after. The president appears increasingly exercised by the special counsel’s relentless probing of his advisers and affairs. On December 7th Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, was warned by prosecutors that he faced a “substantial” prison sentence for offences including tax evasion and campaign finance violations that he undertook on Mr Trump’s behalf. Mr Cohen, who has fallen out with Mr Trump in recent months, has been cooperating with Mr Mueller in hope of leniency. The special counsel’s team told the court that Mr Cohen had provided substantial assistance.

Yet if Mr Barr may be less biddable than Mr Trump would like, he is probably the most partisan nominee the president can reasonably hope to get confirmed by the Senate.

Though the Republicans have a narrow Senate majority, Mr Trump’s ill designs on the Mueller investigation and rough treatment of Mr Sessions, a long-time senator, make his effort to replace him potentially hazardous. Senate Republicans responded positively to Mr Barr’s nomination, however. He “will provide new and much-needed leadership for the Department of Justice,” said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is vying to become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee which will run Mr Barr’s confirmation hearing. Democratic senators will no doubt kick up a fuss about Mr Barr’s partisan comments. But even they would be relieved to see the Justice Department in his professional hands rather than Mr Whitaker’s.

Mr Barr’s nomination presaged what is expected to be a substantial staff shakeup by Mr Trump. Also on November 7th he nominated Heather Nauert to be the next US ambassador to the United Nations, following Nikki Haley’s resignation. Ms Nauert, a former Fox News presenter, is currently the State Department’s spokeswoman, which suggests how highly Mr Trump prizes people who come over well on television. And how highly he values loyalty. Ms Nauert was “excellent”, he told reporters last month: “She’s been a supporter for a long time.” Given that Ms Nauert has no serious diplomatic or foreign policy credentials, it also suggests how little he values the UN. Unlike Ms Haley, if confirmed Ms Nauert would not have cabinet rank.

 It was also reported on November 7th that Mr Trump plans imminently to replace John Kelly as chief of staff with Nick Ayers, the current chief to Vice President Mike Pence. This might normally cause alarm. The 36-year Mr Ayers seems unlikely to be able to restrain Mr Trump’s impulsive style. But given how little Mr Kelly, a retired four-star general, has restrained him, that hardly seems to matter.

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