President Trump has opted for William P. Barr as a new selector for attorney general. And the immediate question, as was the attorney general in charge, Matthew G. Whitaker, is what this means for the investigations of special adviser Robert S. Mueller III.
Barr also has a trail of papers with some comments from Trump on the subject, and the New York Times reported that Trump insisted with Barr that he would be rebuffed (long the source of Jeff Sessions' anguish. linked to Trump). At the very least, Trump seems to want Barr to lead the investigation into a new direction.
But where could Barr lead it? His past may contain some clues, including some rather surprising parallels involving another special consultancy investigation.
It was the early 1990s, and the investigations of special attorney Lawrence Walsh on the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan era had dragged far longer and penetrated far deeper than George H.W. I liked the Bush administration. Even Barr, who served as Bush's attorney general, was troubled.
So much so that, in fact, he regularly considered firing the special advisor, according to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post in 1999.
This scene comes from November 1992, just after Bush lost his re-election competition. Reagan's Secretary of Defense, Caspar W. Weinberger, had been indicted only four days before the election, a development that Bush's team had accused of his loss:
As he entered the White House, [Bush] attorney general William Barr in the crowd. With a movement of the index finger of "follow me", the president summoned Barr to the oval office. When they were alone, Bush exploded about Weinberger's re-indictment. "It seems like it was very political!" He screamed, following a series of very pungent remarks. "They cost me the election," he said furiously.
Barr said he thought re-incrimination was a crude political act with a political motive. The prosecutors of the Justice Department of Career would never disclose controversial information in an indictment shortly before the election. Barr said he wanted to fire Walsh. He knew the law well. He could remove Walsh for "misconduct".
"Walsh abused his power!" Bush said, inviting the attorney general to dismiss Walsh.
"I had an itchy finger," Barr replied. During the previous 18 months, he had been tempted. The latest indignation has only renewed its interest. He said he had asked, "What is the standard that applies to this guy?"
He had consulted his most trusted and confidential advisors in the department. They feared that if Barr had stopped Walsh, there would be a new firestorm. Since Walsh was appointed under the law of the independent council, Barr said, the courts will replace him with another person. The investigation would continue.
Neither of them mentioned the obvious alternative: a presidential pardon for Weinberger.
And that's what happened in the end. The charges against Weinberger were extended at the end of December 1992, leading Bush to forgive him and five others on Christmas Eve. The move essentially removed the legs from Walsh's investigation without actually removing it.
But the question did not end here. In the days that followed, Bush's loyalists were worried that Walsh could directly target Bush, who had been vice president during Iran-contra. At that time, speculation continued to exist that Barr could fire Walsh to protect Bush.
Barr made a little secret about what he thought of Walsh's tenure as a special advisor in the following years.
"It was very difficult because of the constant slope of the Iran-contra case and Lawrence Walsh, which I thought was a … I do not know what to say in polite company," Barr said in 2001. "It was definitely a headhunter and he had completely lost his perspective, and he was out there waving against Iran-contra with a lot of headhunters working for him, which affected the whole tenor of the administration. "
There are not two completely analogous situations, and none of this means that Barr will take a similar approach to oversee the Mueller probe. But there are key parallels, including an administration that thinks that special advice has gone beyond its limits, the apparent possibility of forgiveness as an alternative solution and the regular consideration of dismissing the special adviser to end to everything (which Trump reported having tried twice). According to Woodward, Barr admitted that he just wanted to fire Walsh – "I had an itchy finger" – and he stopped at that only because of the political realities of the day. In the end, Bush made the decision – in consultation with Barr – to release graces, an action that was also very controversial and it would be again if Trump were to go this way.
Barr may not regard Mueller as out of control as Walsh thought, but he has criticized the political donations made by Mueller's prosecutors. He also suggested that the evidence to investigate the potential collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia was not as strong as they had been to investigate Hillary Clinton on Uranium One, an agreement approved when he was secretary of state. In other words, it does not seem to consider the investigation as particularly justified in the first place, and has shown a willingness to believe it is politically tainted (suggesting, like Trump, that Mueller's team has too many democratic donors).
At the very least, one might think that he might want to restrain Mueller in some way, if only to avoid another "headhunter" scenario. Expect a lot of grilling on Iran-contra at its confirmation hearings.