William Barr

AP Photo/John Duricka

President Donald Trump said Friday that he plans to nominate former Attorney General William Barr to his old job, naming a formal replacement for Jeff Sessions after ousting him last month and inserting a new controversial figure into special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Trump told reporters outside the White House that Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, is “one of the most respected jurists in the country,” and he said he believes the Senate confirmation process will “go very quickly.”

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“I did not know him until recently, when I went through the process of looking at people, and he was my first choice from Day One,” Trump said, adding that he’s “respected by Republicans and respected by Democrats.”

“I think he will serve with great distinction,” Trump said.

The White House counsel’s office has in recent weeks had several conversations with Barr, who initially urged the president’s advisers to look at other candidates.

Prior to his nomination, some White House aides wondered whether the president would pick a stranger for a job he believes belongs to someone who will be loyal to him. Trump grew frustrated with Sessions for recusing himself from Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and has signaled for more than a year he’d prefer to have someone in the job who can keep close tabs on the wide-ranging probe that has consumed his presidency.

Still, Barr is widely respected among congressional Republicans, making him potentially easier to confirm.

Also on Friday, Trump said he plans to nominate State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to serve as United Nations ambassador. Nikki Haley, the current ambassador, will step down at the end of the year.

The president said Nauert is “very talented, very smart and very quick.”

“I think she’s going to be respected by all,” Trump said.

If approved by the Senate, Barr would take over for acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker as the lead official responsible for overseeing the Mueller investigation. That role includes signoff authority on all major decisions including the special counsel’s budget, subpoenas, indictments and whether to make public a final report.

Barr, who currently works at the Washington law firm Kirkland & Ellis, has not shied away from sharing his opinions about several of the key issues central to the Mueller probe.

He penned an op-ed in The Washington Post in May 2017 defending Trump’s move just days earlier to fire FBI Director James Comey. Barr has also weighed in on the president’s steady criticism of the Mueller team because several of its prosecutors have donated money to Democrats.

“In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” Barr told the Post in July 2017. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”

In November 2017, Barr also downplayed criticism that Trump was crossing a line when he called for a new special counsel appointment to examine potential wrongdoing at the Clinton Foundation tied to suggestions a U.S. government panel approved the sale of a large uranium firm to Russian interests in exchange for donations to the foundation.

“There is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation,” Barr told The New York Times. “Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation.”

The former George H.W. Bush official also said the Clinton uranium deal deserved more scrutiny than any collusion concerns between Trump and Russia. “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” Barr said.

The Clintons have denied any wrongdoing.

Barr’s comments related to the issues before the Justice Department and Mueller have prompted complaints from the left that he would be a compromised attorney general. “It’s even worse than the fox in the henhouse. It’s the fox showing its teeth as he enters it,” said Max Bergmann, an advisory board member for the group Protect the Investigation.

But others aren’t as concerned about Barr’s return to Justice, where he previously oversaw Mueller — then the head of the department’s criminal division —- during the first H.W. Bush administration.

“Barr would not be my choice and this is by no means an endorsement, but I don’t think this is an outcome that would spell doom for either the department’s norms and traditions or for the Mueller investigation,” Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and editor in chief of the blog Lawfare, wrote Thursday night on Twitter as the Barr nomination gained momentum.

“And having a person of Barr’s stature go before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a serious confirmation process is a HELL of a lot better than having the incumbent AAG remain in place,” Wittes added, referring to Whitaker, whose temporary status atop DOJ has prompted concerns that he would undermine the Mueller investigation.

Barr originally told the White House he preferred they look at other candidates for the attorney general job, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and his Kirkland and Ellis colleague Mark Filip, who served as deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, according to two sources familiar with the conversations.

But each alternative presented a problem. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the president not to tap a member of his caucus that would force a special election, making a GOP seat vulnerable to a Democratic flip. Graham allies have also insisted the South Carolina Republican has no interest in joining the administration. Filip, meantime, had recently taken on a big case and was likely uninterested in the position.

That left the White House and Republican lawmakers circling back to Barr, expressing to him their continued interest.

A former Trump White House official said Barr’s name had also been in the mix as a potential replacement for White House counsel Don McGahn, who left his post in October after a tumultuous tenure. Barr had also been on a longer list of potential personal lawyers who could have represented the president in the Mueller probe.

Trump, who did not know Barr personally and has always wanted a loyalist in the job, agreed to tap him for the position after seeing his statements about both Comey and Mueller.

The president also was swayed by the positive reviews from Senate GOP officials, something he acknowledged Friday morning, telling reporters: “I’ve seen very good things about him even over the last day or so when people thought it might be Bill Barr.”

Barr was confirmed as attorney general by voice vote in 1991, which is unlikely to happen again given all the drama in the Senate over Mueller’s probe and the insistence of Democrats and some Republicans that the next attorney general protect the investigation. Still, there were early signs that GOP leaders are happy with the choice despite their surprise at the timing of Barr’s nomination.

“Bill Barr is exceptionally well-qualified. He understands the job and will have the confidence of the Congress as well as the president,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who will be the No. 4 Republican next year.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said the panel will have a “frank” discussion with the nominee about the special counsel next year, when Graham will take over as chairman. Graham has sought to protect Mueller through legislation, so he’s sure to be asked pointed questions about shielding the probe from presidential interference. Trump attacked Mueller on Friday, calling his forthcoming investigation a “Witch Hunt Report.”

A Trump critic turned loyalist, Graham was unaware of the specifics of the forthcoming shake-up in an interview this week. But he did expect the Cabinet to experience significant changes heading into next year and was advocating for a new AG to be nominated and vetted as soon as possible so Barr can be confirmed next year.

“We can’t really do it ‘til next year anyway. But the sooner we get the process started, we’ll be good to go,” Graham said.

In a statement following Barr’s nomination, Graham said he will “do everything in my power” to confirm him as quickly as possible.

Senate Republicans picked up two seats last month and will begin January with a 53-47 majority, giving them some breathing room on Barr’s nomination that they would lack this month if they tried to confirm him. But Nauert could be more difficult given her lack of foreign policy experience, and she could face tough questions from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Still, because of recent Senate rules changes, the GOP can unilaterally confirm nominees without Democratic support. And new Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) is seen by Republicans as closer to the president than outgoing Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has emerged as a critic of some of the president’s policies and actions.

Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.

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