There are times for Democrats to confront President Donald Trump and times not to.
The nomination of William Barr to be attorney general, pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee, is an example of the latter.
Whatever problems Democrats have with Barr’s expansive views of presidential authority and lock-’em-up views of criminal enforcement, the bottom line is that he is as good a nominee as this administration is likely to put forward and would be a vast improvement over the acting attorney general.
In the main, Barr is an experienced, responsible law enforcement professional with an impressive résumé and a healthy respect for the people looking into the potential misdeeds of President Donald Trump and his election campaign.
During his confirmation hearings, Barr went out of his way to praise special counsel Robert Mueller, making abundantly clear that Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is not the “witch hunt” that Trump has called it. Barr said he would resign rather than carry out a presidential order to fire Mueller without good cause. The nominee, furthermore, expressed his strong opinion that the Mueller report should be made public as much as possible, consistent with department regulations.
OPPOSING VIEW: William Barr would put rights of Americans at risk
For these and other reasons, Barr deserves to be on a fast track to confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate, particularly now that Matthew Whitaker — Trump’s ill-suited, unqualified appointee to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general on an interim basis — says the Mueller inquiry is “close to being completed.”
It is likely that many of the Democratic senators contemplating a run for president will vote against Barr. Kamala Harris of California has already announced her intention to do so. But a strong vote for him would allow Democrats to amass credibility and political capital by demonstrating that they are open-minded and not reflexively against anyone Trump nominates.
This is not to say that Barr does not raise some red flags. He was a strong advocate of the pardons of Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-Contra affair, the sale of arms to Iran to help fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. He sent an unsolicited legal memorandum last year to senior Trump administration officials, which strikes us as an attorney searching for a position in the Justice Department by toadying up to the White House. Most troubling is what he said in the memorandum: that presidents have largely unfettered power to start or end law enforcement actions, and that Mueller’s inquiry into whether Trump committed obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived.”
Barr’s expansive view of presidential powers is not rooted in the Constitution. His assertions of sweeping law enforcement powers of the president would be deeply offensive to Founding Fathers suspicious of concentrated power.
Even so, Barr has gone a long way to distance himself from this memo. His prior experience as attorney general in the administration of George H.W. Bush, which gives him a solid understanding of the Justice Department’s culture of independence, makes him a strong candidate for the post. The sooner he’s on the job, the better.
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