MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump is closing out the week with a flurry of staff appointments - a new U.N. ambassador, a new chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a new attorney general. His choice for that last post? A prominent Republican lawyer who has held the job once before in the administration of President George Herbert Walker Bush. William Barr served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He was my first choice from day one, respected by Republicans and respected by Democrats.
KELLY: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here to tell us more. Hey, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: So what else do we need to know about William Barr, other than that he was really, really young the first time around that he did this?
LUCAS: (Laughter) Well, he's a well-respected, establishment Republican lawyer. He has a lengthy resume of government service. A lot of that dates back several decades. You mentioned of course that he was attorney general for George H.W. Bush. He served as deputy attorney general before that and also led the - DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel. So he knows the Justice Department. He knows how it works. People who worked with him there say he has deep respect for the institution.
Now, if he's confirmed as Trump's attorney general, Barr will take over from Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker has been leading the DOJ on an acting basis, temporary basis, since Jeff Sessions resigned last month. And that of course was under pressure from the White House.
KELLY: And I should explain my really young comment. Barr is 68 now, which put him in his early 40s when he first held this job, which...
LUCAS: That's right.
KELLY: ...Since I'm now 47, I'm going to qualify that as really, really young.
KELLY: To get confirmed for this job, he is of course going to need to be confirmed by the Senate. How is his nomination being received on Capitol Hill?
LUCAS: Well, for Republicans, this is a solid, reassuring choice. They like Barr's experience. They view that as a major asset. Take for example Senator Lindsey Graham. He's a Trump ally, leading member of the Judiciary Committee, which of course will handle Barr's confirmation. So Graham called Barr's selection outstanding. He says Barr is highly capable, calls him highly respected.
And he says that he'll provide new and much-needed leadership at the Justice Department. That of course appeared to be a nod to the turmoil that surrounded the department during Jeff Sessions' tenure as Trump's first attorney general. Trump, of course, routinely criticized Sessions, as well as the Justice Department itself.
KELLY: Not a surprise to hear that Republicans like Lindsey Graham are on board with this. What about Democrats?
LUCAS: Democrats acknowledge that Barr has experience, of course, running the department. They acknowledge his legal capabilities as well. But there are a number of things that they have concerns about. Chief among them is how Barr views the special counsel's Russia investigation. Barr has voiced...
KELLY: Which he would be overseeing.
LUCAS: Yes, as of now, if he's confirmed. Barr has voiced concerns publicly about political donations made by Mueller's team. He's also suggested that Trump's calls for the department to investigate Hillary Clinton were not improper. Those are sources of concerns for Democrats. He's also expressed some very sweeping views of presidential power. He did that back in the 1990s. That's a cause for concern as well. Democrats are looking for some guarantees from Barr. The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, wants him to commit under oath that he will not impede the Russia investigation and that he will make Mueller's final report available to Congress and to the public.
KELLY: And briefly, Ryan, he has a long record in Washington. Is that going to hurt or help him in the confirmation process?
LUCAS: His nomination is getting some pushback from the civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates. But right now, Republicans appear to be on board. And they appear to be able to kind of push this across the line.
KELLY: All right. NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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