How William Barr handled special counsel investigations the last time he was attorney general

William Barr and George H.W. Bush.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)

What kind of attorney general will William Barr be for President Trump?

That's the question on everyone's mind since Trump made the pick official Friday morning, and one need only look to Barr's first tenure as attorney general — under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 through 1993 — to get an idea.

Barr comes into the role knowing plenty about investigations like the one Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal was ongoing when Barr last served, and The Washington Post points out that Barr regularly considered firing him. Bob Woodward reported at the time that Barr wanted to dismiss Walsh for "misconduct," feeling that his decision to indict former President Ronald Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, shortly before the presidential election was politically motivated. Barr himself admitted, "I've had an itchy finger."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Ultimately, Barr did not fire Walsh. But he did advise Bush to pardon six officials who had been indicted in the scandal, including Weinberger, writes the Post. Walsh criticized this decision and referred to the Christmas Eve pardons as "a sort of Saturday night massacre." One difference between the two situations, Slate points out, is that Walsh wasn't under Justice Department supervision like Mueller is, meaning this time around, Barr could be compelled to just let Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein handle things.

Whether he would take more drastic measures when push comes to shove, though, remains to be seen, and The New York Times reports that Trump in his hiring process has been concerned about whether his new attorney general pick would recuse himself from the Russia probe, apparently wanting someone who will take a more hands-on approach than former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Barr has offered some criticism of Mueller's Russia probe in the past, and the Times reports that some experts are concerned with his "expansive view of presidential power."

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us