In December 1992, then-Attorney General William Barr faced a decision for the history books: Should he recommend presidential pardons for senior government officials accused of crimes in a massive, headline-grabbing White House scandal, even though the pardons would be criticized as the final act of a cover-up to protect the incumbent president?
The decision, Barr later said, was not so difficult. He urged President George H.W. Bush, then in his final weeks in office, to grant Christmas Eve pardons to six men, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who had been caught up in a criminal investigation of the so-called Iran-Contra affair. The Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was outraged by the pardons: “The Iran-Contra cover-up has now been completed.”Story Continued Below
A quarter century later, Barr, a Republican lawyer who is a veteran of the revolving door between the federal government and a private legal career, is entitled to more than a passing sense of déjà vu.
Last week, President Donald Trump announced he was nominating Barr to return to the Justice Department for a second stint as attorney general.
And if confirmed by the Senate, it won’t just be the attorney general’s grand, wood-paneled suite of offices overlooking Constitution Avenue that might feel familiar to Barr. He will—once again—almost certainly have the legally and politically perilous job of overseeing the work of a hard-charging, high-profile investigator taking aim at the White House: this time Robert Mueller, who is probing possible Russian collusion in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. (Barr would succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russian investigation because of his work on the Trump campaign. White House officials have suggested that Barr faces no such conflict and could oversee Mueller’s work.)
And in overseeing Mueller, Barr is likely—once again—to be asked to weigh in on the legality and political wisdom of presidential pardons to people who are the targets of the special counsel’s work. Trump has repeatedly dangled the idea of pardons for former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and others from Trump’s orbit who have become ensnared in Mueller’s investigation.
For the moment, Barr—a spry, dark-haired 42-year-old when he left the Justice Department in January 1993, now a gray-haired 68—is not answering questions about how he might deal with the Russia probe and the possibility of pardons to people like Manafort and Flynn. Barr did not respond to emails to his law firm asking for comment.
That silence cannot last much longer, however, since Barr will soon be called to testify in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, probably early next month. He can expect to get plenty of questions from senators about the details of what happened in the early 1990s, when Barr, as attorney general, oversaw Walsh’s independent counsel investigation of the Iran-Contra affair—and whether his bad blood with Walsh could signal similar trouble for Mueller.
By the time the Iran-Contra pardons were issued in 1992, Walsh had spent six years investigating the Reagan administration’s illegal sales of military arms to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to fund the Contras, the anti-communist militia in the Nicaraguan civil war.
In his memoirs, Walsh, who died in 2014 and spent most of his career as a dogged Wall Street litigator, described Barr as having been “outspokenly hostile” to the special prosecutor’s investigation. The relationship was so difficult, Walsh wrote, that in late 1991, he and his staff rushed to complete a final report because they feared that Barr was about to shut down their investigation. “The attorney general had the power to remove me from office,” Walsh wrote. “I wanted to be able to file my report promptly if our office was closed down.”
For his part, Barr, a long-standing champion of executive-branch powers who has been skeptical of the concept of special prosecutors, described Walsh as a “headhunter who had completely lost perspective and was out there flailing about on Iran-Contra—with a lot of headhunters working for him.”
In an interview in December 1992, in his final weeks as attorney general, Barr suggested he shared a widely held view in the Bush administration that Walsh was trying to convert foreign policy differences—involving American interests in Central America and the Middle East—into criminal offenses. “I think people in the Iran-Contra matter have been treated very unfair, many of them,” Barr said. “People in this Iran-Contra matter have been prosecuted for the kind of crimes that would not have been criminal or prosecutable by the Department of Justice.”
In a separate 2001 oral history for the University of Virginia, Barr suggested that he personally came up with the idea of pardons for Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary; McFarlane, the former national security adviser; and the others: former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams and former CIA officials Clair George, Alan Fiers Jr. and Duane Clarridge.
“I asked some of my staff to look into the indictment that was brought” against Weinberger, as well as into the cases of “other people I felt had been unjustly treated” by Walsh’s office, Barr said. “Based on those discussions, I went over and told the president I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others.”
Weinberger had been awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to the Contras. The other five had pleaded guilty to, were convicted of, or were awaiting trial on similar charges.
When the pardons were announced, Walsh was furious and suggested they were Bush’s attempt to protect himself from being directly implicated the Iran arms sales, which took place when Bush was Reagan’s vice president.
At his confirmation hearings, Barr can also expect questions about his personal and professional relationship with Mueller, a fellow Republican who worked for Barr at the Justice Department from 1991 until both men departed in 1993 at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration. Mueller was then an assistant attorney general and ran the department’s criminal division.
Former Justice Department officials said the two men had a cordial relationship at the time, although Barr has surprised some of his former department colleagues with his willingness to speak out over the past two years to defend Trump and criticize Mueller’s investigation. Last year, Barr told the Washington Post that he questioned why Mueller had hired so many lawyers for the special counsel’s team who had made political donations to Democratic campaigns. “In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” Barr said. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”
Barr has also been outspoken in support of Trump’s May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey, a decision now under investigation by Mueller as possible evidence of obstruction of justice by the president to derail the Russia investigation. “It is not surprising that Trump would be inclined to make a fresh start at the bureau,” Barr wrote in a Post op-ed days after Comey’s dismissal.
Not everything will be so familiar to Barr if he returns to the Justice Department. In fact, he faces a situation unlike any he confronted at the department in the 1990s—and that few attorneys general have faced in the nation’s history. Last week, prosecutors for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan alleged that during the 2016 campaign, Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to violate federal campaign-finance laws by making hush-money payments to two women who alleged sexual encounters with Trump, including porn star Stormy Daniels.
The prosecutors making those allegations don’t work for Mueller; they’re with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and answer up the chain of command to the Justice Department in Washington. That would mean that, if confirmed, Barr would have ultimate oversight for a federal criminal investigation that would appear to target Trump, identified in the court documents in New York last week as “Individual-1.” In that case, the president’s fate might not rest with Mueller and his team. Instead, it might end up in the hands of the attorney general who Trump himself put in place.
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