Trump picks new attorney general and U.N. ambassador, while airing grievances against Mueller and Tillerson
President Trump on Friday picked an establishment Republican with a polished legal career to lead the Justice Department and a political loyalist and brash media personality to represent the U.S. at the United Nations, underlining the political tensions in a White House scrambling for a reset.
Trump said he would nominate William Barr to serve as attorney general, putting the white-shoe lawyer back atop the Justice Department that he led under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s.
If confirmed, Barr would take over supervision of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which has shadowed Trump’s tenure.
Barr has criticized the inquiry, echoing some of Trump’s complaints. He has suggested, for example, that it is partisan in nature because some of the prosecutors under Robert S. Mueller III, a Republican, had contributed to Democrats’ campaigns.
At the same time, however, some who worked with Barr said they were relieved by the choice, noting that he had deep ties to federal prosecutors and law enforcement, including Mueller, who headed the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in Barr’s previous stint as attorney general.
“He is very much an institutionalist,” said Joe Whitley, who served with Barr in the top ranks of the Justice Department. “He eats, sleeps, breathes the ether of the Department of Justice. He is a person of great integrity. I can’t see him doing anything other than by the book.”
Former FBI Director James B. Comey, whom Trump fired, also praised Barr.
“I like and respect Bill Barr. I know he’s an institutionalist who cares deeply about the integrity of the Justice Department,” Comey told reporters Friday.
Trump also said he will nominate Heather Nauert, a former Fox News anchor who has been State Department spokeswoman since April 2017, as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. The president will downgrade the position to a sub-Cabinet post, according to a White House official, reversing Trump’s previous upgrade of the job.
The choices marked the start of an expected series of high-level staff changes as Trump seeks to recover from last month’s bruising midterm election, which saw heavy Republican losses in the House and in state elections, and prepares for his 2020 reelection race.
Among those reportedly on the exit ramp is John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff. The president privately indicated this week that he plans to pick Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, to replace the retired Marine four-star general.
Trump also is expected to name Gen. Mark A. Milley, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with combat commands, to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after Gen. Joseph Dunford, who will complete his term next fall. Trump indicated that he would make the announcement at the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia on Saturday.
The announcements came on a day on which Trump prominently aired grievances with Mueller and with his former secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.
In a series of Twitter messages Friday morning, he attacked Mueller for unspecified “big time conflicts of interest.”
Later in the day, he called Tillerson “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.” Before he became the nation’s top diplomat, Tillerson was chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp.
The comments about Tillerson came after the former secretary of State said in an interview in Houston that Trump was “pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘Look, this is what I believe.’”
If confirmed, Barr, 68, would replace Jeff Sessions, who was ousted as attorney general a day after the Nov. 6 election, and Matthew Whitaker, who has been acting attorney general since then.
Barr served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under Bush, who died last Friday. He emerged as a consensus choice among Trump’s advisors because of his experience and likely chances of winning Senate confirmation.
“He was my first choice since day one,” Trump told reporters Friday before he left for a speech in Kansas City, Mo. He indicated he was pleased with the response after Barr’s name was floated in news stories. “I’ve seen very good things about him, even over the last day or so when people thought that it might be Bill Barr,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who, as the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would oversee Barr’s confirmation hearing, led a chorus of Republicans on Capitol Hill who praised Trump’s pick.
Calling it “an outstanding decision,” Graham vowed to do “everything in my power” to help Barr through his confirmation hearings and then win approval in the full Senate, a process that could take several months.
Barr “is a known quantity, a man of the highest integrity and character, and has an impeccable reputation,” Graham said.
Democrats vowed to press Barr on how he would handle the Russia investigation, which has led to guilty pleas by five of Trump’s former aides or associates.
“I will demand that Mr. Barr make a firm and specific commitment to protect the Mueller investigation, operate independently of the White House and uphold the rule of law,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) signaled that Democrats would review Barr’s record in the public and private sectors and would demand a commitment from him that he would allow the Mueller inquiry to “proceed unimpeded” and make the special counsel’s final report available to Congress and the public.
“Given President Trump’s demonstrated lack of regard for the rule of law and the independence of the American justice system, his nominee for attorney general will have a steep hill to climb in order to be confirmed by the Senate,” Schumer said in a statement.
As attorney general in the early 1990s, Barr had “an itchy finger” and wanted to fire Lawrence E. Walsh, the special prosecutor investigating arm sales to Iran and illegal support for right-wing Contra forces in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration, according to a book by Bob Woodward.
Bush ended up pardoning several people who had been convicted or charged, a step that Walsh called “the last card in the cover-up.”
Barr also has a long record of supporting broad concepts of executive power. More recently, Barr has suggested that Trump is within his powers to order the Justice Department to launch investigations. In tweets and campaign rallies, Trump has repeatedly demanded that investigators go after Hillary Clinton and other Democratic targets of his ire.
“Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation,” Barr told the New York Times last year.
Barr also said the sale of U.S. uranium deposits to a Russian company when Clinton was secretary of State was more worthy of investigation than whether Trump’s presidential campaign cooperated with a Russian effort to influence the 2016 election. Trump allies have frequently pointed to the uranium sale as a potential scandal, though independent examinations in recent years have found none.
Norm Eisen, President Obama’s former ethics czar and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, called Barr’s comments on the debunked uranium controversy “bizarre” and worried that his establishment pedigree obscures what are actually extremist views.
“He’s woefully deficient on the two big issues of the Mueller investigation, obstruction and collusion,” Eisen said. “It’s really concerning that he seems to have drank the Hannity-Trump Kool-Aid,” in reference to Fox News host and Trump ally Sean Hannity.
Barr did not play a role in Trump’s campaign, so he would not face the same pressure as Sessions, who was a prominent advisor, to step aside from the Russia investigation. Whitaker, the acting attorney general, was picked after he had sharply criticized the Mueller investigation on cable TV news shows, but he has not moved — at least in public — to curtail it.
Nauert, 48, would replace Nikki Haley, who announced in October that she would leave the U.N. ambassador’s post at year’s end.
The former Fox News host has little foreign policy experience, but she is close to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, and Trump values her ability to communicate on TV. Nauert has logged more than two dozen overseas trips with Pompeo and his predecessor, Tillerson.
“She’s very talented, very smart, very quick, and I think she’ll be respected by all,” Trump said.
Nauert appeared the likely pick early on, but her nomination hit a snag in the last month as Trump considered others for the post.
A White House official said Trump will downgrade the position of U.N. ambassador to a sub-Cabinet level, which has been the case several times under Republican administrations. At Haley’s urging, Trump had made the job a Cabinet post, which led to friction with Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton, who have both pushed the president to downgrade the position.
The changes came amid growing indications that Kelly, who has served as White House chief of staff since July 2017, may be on his way out after a tumultuous tenure.
Kelly sought to bring military-style discipline to a dysfunctional West Wing riven by internal factions, but Trump bristled over his chief of staff’s efforts to restrict the information flow into the Oval Office and his demeanor, being far less deferential to the president than other aides.
Relations between the president and Kelly appear “completely broken,” according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Trump told Pence this week that he plans to replace Kelly with Ayers, who joined the vice president’s staff last year, according to an administration official.
Ayers, 36, has grown close to Trump, as well as to his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both advisors to the president. He is less popular with others in the West Wing who worry about his fast ascent and ambition.
One historian said Trump needs an empowered chief of staff who can speak hard truths to him, as Kelly struggled to do.
“He’s not the first president to come to office full of hubris, thinking he’s the smartest one in the room,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”
“Most presidents get over that. President Trump has not.”
Times staff writers Chris Megerian, Noah Bierman, Jennifer Haberkorn and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
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