WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate confirmed William Barr as attorney general Thursday, putting him at the head of the Justice Department for the second time in his career and in position to oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Senators Doug Jones, D-Ala., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., broke from their party to vote in Barr’s favor. Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the lone Republican to vote against Barr.
The 54-45 vote for Barr to serve as the second attorney general under President Donald Trump comes a week after the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced his nomination on a party-line vote.
“He is a steady hand at a time of turmoil and he will bring much needed reform to the Department of Justice,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “I look forward to working with Mr. Barr on the many issues facing the men and women of the Department of Justice and our nation as a whole.”
Since the forced ouster in November of Trump’s last attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the position has been held in an acting capacity by Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ former chief of staff.
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from investigations related to the campaign sparked months of public criticism by Trump and put Mueller’s probe under the oversight of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. So far the probe has returned 12 indictments, including several against members of Trump’s campaign and administration.
Much of the debate surrounding Barr’s nomination centered on his ability to oversee this investigation impartially. In June, before he was nominated, Barr sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department that was critical of the tack he believed, based on public reports, Mueller was taking in the investigation.
In the 19-page memo, Barr said it appeared Mueller was looking into a possible obstruction case against Trump that centered on the president’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. In the memo, Barr argued Mueller could not force Trump to submit to an interview in the investigation on this basis, which he called “fatally misconceived.”
“As I understand it, his theory is premised on a novel and legally insupportable reading of the law,” Barr wrote. “Moreover, in my view, if credited by the department, it would have grave consequences far beyond the immediate confines of this case and would do lasting damage to the presidency and to the administration of law within the executive branch.”
During his nomination hearing in January, Barr told senators he could not see a situation in which Mueller would be fired, given Justice Department regulations that hold the special counsel can only be let go for cause. He said he would follow the Justice Department’s special counsel regulations “scrupulously and in good faith,” and told senators he would resign if Trump ordered him to fire Mueller without reason.
“Bob could only be terminated for good cause and it’s unimaginable to me that Bob would do anything that would give rise to that good cause,” Barr said at his nomination hearing.
Democrats expressed concern about Barr’s independence from Trump and ability to impartially oversee Mueller’s probe, but Republicans hailed him as a steady hand at the Justice Department.
Barr served as attorney general under President George H. W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, having previously served as a policy advisor in the Reagan White House.
After leaving the Justice Department, Barr spent time in private practice and as general counsel at GTE Corporation and Verizon. He later joined the Washington, D.C., firm Kirkland & Ellis, working as of counsel at the firm since 2017.