The Senate confirmed William P. Barr as the new attorney general Thursday, giving President Trump a new top cop and special counsel Robert Mueller a new overseer.
Analysts said they expect Mr. Barr to be a steadying presence — and doubted there will be much of a shift in course from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Both Sessions and Barr are very tough on crime, law enforcement-minded people on issues like drug offenses and immigration, so there is not much light or space between them,” said Jimmy Gurule, a University of Notre Dame law professor who was an assistant attorney general under Mr. Barr during his first term as attorney general, for President George H.W. Bush.
Mr. Barr was approved on a 54-45 vote, with only a few Democrats voting in favor, and just one Republican opposed.
He was sworn in at the White House on Thursday afternoon, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administering the oath of office.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Mr. Barr’s confirmation “a major victory for justice and the rule of law in America.”
During his previous stint as attorney general Mr. Barr took a strict stance on illegal immigration, and pushed for mandatory minimum sentences, just as Mr. Sessions did. That could prove to be an early test for Mr. Barr, after Mr. Trump late last year signed the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that trimmed back those sentencing rules.
Both Mr. Barr and Mr. Sessions had opposed it, though when asked about the legislation during his confirmation hearing, Mr. Barr promised to “faithfully enforce that law.”
Neil Kinkopf, a Georgia State University law professor who testified against Mr. Barr’s confirmation, said he is not sure whether the new attorney general will follow his pledge.
“The attorney general has a tremendous amount of wiggle room and enforcement discretion to effectuate that law or make it much more narrow,” he said. “There is an awful lot of room to minimize the First Step Act by ordering prosecutors to pursue certain charges.”
But Mr. Gurule said thwarting the law would be foolish.
“Ignoring the First Step Act would make him the target of congressional hearings,” he said. “That would be counterproductive and against his interests. He may not like the law, but he will respect it.”
Elliot Williams, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, said there are other reasons not to expect much of an upheaval in the changeover to Mr. Barr.
“In part, the priorities of the Justice Department are the priorities of the president’s administration, they don’t change from one attorney general to another in the same administration,” he said.
Perhaps the largest difference between Mr. Barr and his predecessor is that the current attorney general will not recuse himself from Mr. Mueller’s probe of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. The special counsel’s investigation had been led by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and then acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.
But what Mr. Barr’s leadership will mean is up for speculation.
“The problem is that we don’t know how things operated on the day-to-day basis with respect to the Mueller probe,” Mr. Williams said. “As a result we don’t know if things are going to change when Barr takes over.”
Mr. Gurule said judging by Mr. Barr’s confirmation hearing testimony, he will likely be supportive of the probe, like Mr. Rosenstein.
Democrats, though, voted en masse against Mr. Barr, saying they fear he will thwart Mr. Mueller or try to bottle up his conclusions.
During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Barr refused to make an ironclad guarantee he would release Mr. Mueller’s final report, but he did say he considers Mr. Mueller a friend and has pledged to let him finish his work.
Media reports say that Mr. Barr has visited the Justice Department and has had discussions about his choices to fill the number two and three positions at the department. Mr. Rosenstein is expected to step down shortly after Mr. Barr takes the reins.
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