Politics

In the 1990s, Joe Biden said William Barr was “one of the best” attorneys general

In 1995, Sen. Joe Biden offered high praise for William Barr, the once and future attorney general who has been roundly criticized by Democrats for his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 election. 

“As I know you know, but others should know, too, I truly enjoyed working with you when you were attorney general,” Biden told Barr, who had served as President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general in the early 1990s. “You were one of the best I have ever worked with, and there have been a lot of attorneys general since I have been here, and I mean that sincerely.”

When Biden made that remark, he was the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Barr, who had moved to the private sector after Bush was defeated in the 1992 election, was testifying at a hearing on “enhancing the effectiveness of incarceration.” 

Biden’s comments were emblematic of a different, less polarized Washington. They also stand in stark contrast to what Biden and congressional Democrats say about Barr today.  

In May, Biden called for Barr’s resignation and said he “lost the confidence of the America people” after Barr summarized Mueller’s report in a way many of the president’s critics found misleading. Mueller himself told Barr that he was frustrated by the summary’s “lack of context.”

Biden’s call for Barr’s resignation followed several Democrats on Capitol Hill who have zeroed in on the attorney general for what they characterize as his improper handling of the special counsel’s investigation, which he oversaw in its final months. 

The House Judiciary Committee recently voted to hold Barr in contempt for “refusing to release the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying evidence.” On some fronts, congressional Democrats and the Justice Department are cooperating. But while Barr has agreed to provide more unreleased material from the Mueller report to some lawmakers, the House still plans to vote on a resolution authorizing Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York, and other committee chairs to ask the courts to force the Trump administration to comply with their subpoenas. 

The situation now is a far cry from the one Barr experienced in 1991, when he was nominated to become Bush’s attorney general, less than a month after the spectacle of Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings before the same committee, which Thomas famously called a “high-tech lynching.” Although the Senate was in Democratic hands, Barr’s confirmation was anything but acrimonious. 

During his confirmation hearing, Barr argued that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, “should be overruled” because the decision “foreclosed any kind of role for society to place regulations on abortion.” Barr’s feeling was that legal questions concerning abortion were “legitimate issues for state legislatures to deal with.” 

Biden, who had long touted his moderate views on abortion rights, said he did not agree with Barr’s opinion on the matter. However, Biden did say that Barr should be “complimented” for giving “the first candid answer anyone has given on Roe v. Wade that I can remember in God knows how many years.” 

“Thank you for being candid with us,” Biden repeated to Barr. “We’ve become accustomed to the lack of candor, and I appreciate it very much.”

Biden also hoped Barr, if confirmed as attorney general, would be an ally in the future vice president’s efforts to pass sweeping anti-crime legislation in the early 1990s. “And if we do, it will only be with your help if we’re able to,” Biden told Barr at the hearing. 

A few years later, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, Congress passed a major crime bill championed by Biden. Critics of the legislation say it imposed draconian penalties that contributed to unfair rates of incarceration for minorities. The bill’s defenders, meanwhile, say it helped lead to a nationwide drop in violent crime.  

In a foreshadowing of current Democratic criticisms of Barr, Biden probed Barr on his “reputation as a staunch defender of broad executive power” because he said the attorney general’s “allegiance must be to the public.” 

Along these lines, Biden also highlighted criticism from legislators that an investigation Barr was overseeing into a Luxembourg-based bank with ties to elite politicians was moving too slowly. That unsettled investigation was being led by Mueller, who then was leading the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, where Barr had been acting attorney general since 1990.  

Barr told Biden and the committee the investigation would not be cowed by political pressure. He also said he recognized that the Justice Department “shouldn’t sweep anything under the rug. Don’t cut anyone a special break. Don’t show favoritism.”

After the two-day hearing concluded, Biden called Barr a “heck on an honorable guy.” The late liberal lion Ted Kennedy, who also sat on the committee, praised Barr’s career in government and was among those who voted 14-0 to unanimously recommend that Barr be confirmed. The Senate, then under Democratic control, would later confirm Barr in a voice vote with no objections. 

Barr no longer enjoys the sterling reputation on both sides of the aisle in enjoyed in the early 1990s. When asked by CBS News’ Jan Crawford if he regrets becoming such a widely disliked figure on the left, Barr said that he expected his reputation would change, but that it doesn’t matter to him now that he’s reached the end of his career. 

“Everyone dies and I am not…I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that, you know, immortality comes by having odes sung about you over the centuries,” Barr told Crawford. 

House Democrats, meanwhile, are sure to continue to press Barr for the full Mueller report — an effort that’s sure to be cheered on by the Democratic presidential field, including Biden. In a sign of how much more combative Washington has become in the decades since Barr first became a cabinet official, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently went so far as to call him the president’s “lap dog.” 

“Vice President Biden believes Bill Barr’s conduct as Attorney General has been unacceptable, and he should resign his office,” Biden campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo told CBS News in a statement.

“As many across the political spectrum have said,” he continued, “Bill Barr’s behavior today bears almost no resemblance to the person who testified 28 years ago. He has abused the public trust for political gain and has clearly lost the confidence of the American people, and he has to go.” 

Julia Cherner contributed research to this story. 




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