President Donald Trump said Friday he will nominate former Attorney General William Barr to again lead the Justice Department, a move that could have ramifications for the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The attorney general for President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, Barr in recent months has criticized aspects of the Russia investigation and defended many of Trump's actions, including his dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.
If confirmed, Barr would replace attorney general Jeff Sessions, who was dismissed last month by Trump. The president had constantly criticized Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he had been involved with Trump's campaign in 2016.
Administration officials began circulating Barr's name on Thursday, and senators from both parties praised the prospective nominee's experience.
Barr is still likely to face criticism from opponents who have cited his own criticisms of the Russia collusion investigation and his defenses of Trump's calls for investigations of Democrats. They also noted that Barr ran the Justice Department at the time that President George H.W. Bush pardoned officials in the Iran-Contra affair.
"If he is the nominee, he will deserve a very rigorous vetting by the Senate," said Norm Eisen, who chairs the organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "He has advanced the bizarre idea that Hillary Clinton's role in the Uranium One deal is more worthy of investigation than Trump-Russia collusion. That is nonsense."
Eisen added: "And he was involved in questionable pardons by Bush that may be a precedent for even more illegitimate ones by Trump."
Mueller's team is also investigative whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation, including via the firing of Comey in 2017.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post shortly after the dismissal, Barr said Trump had the right to fire Comey based on overall performance issues.
"Comey’s removal," Barr wrote, "simply has no relevance to the integrity of the Russian investigation as it moves ahead."
In a sense, Barr would also replace acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, another critic of the Russian probe whom Trump put in place after Sessions' resignation.
While Sessions' departure was expected because of a long-fractured relationship with the White House, Whitaker's installation drew immediate opposition because he lacked Senate confirmation required of other Cabinet officials. Critics have also cited past public statements questioning the legitimacy of the ongoing inquiry into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, a probe headed up by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Since Whitaker’s appointment, Democrats and Republicans – including two former attorneys general who served Republican administrations – have asserted that Trump skirted established rules of succession to install the former Iowa federal prosecutor.
In interviews with USA TODAY, Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, who both served in the George W. Bush administration, aligned themselves with a contingent of legal analysts who assert that the post should have been filled by a Justice Department official who has been confirmed by the Senate.
Whitaker’s appointment also has been the subject of several pending legal challenges. And earlier this week, more than 400 former Justice officials and staffers signed a statement calling for Whitaker’s removal.
Opponents of the appointment have also claimed Trump selected Whitaker to derail Mueller's investigation.
The attacks may have dissuaded Trump from nominating Whitaker to the job full time.