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WASHINGTON -- Former Attorney General William Barr is President Donald Trump's leading candidate to be nominated to lead the Justice Department, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Barr, 68, a well-respected Republican lawyer who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, has emerged as a favorite among a number of Trump administration officials, including senior lawyers in the White House counsel's office, these people said. Two people familiar with internal discussions said the president has told advisers in recent days that he plans to nominate Barr.

Administration officials are preparing for the likelihood that Barr's nomination will be announced in the coming days, these people said. Barr declined to comment.

Given the political fights enveloping the Justice Department, any attorney general general nominee is likely to face tough questions at Senate confirmation hearings.

The president has repeatedly accused the department of a biased investigation into his campaign, and said special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a "witch hunt" targeting him and his aides. Democrats want assurances the department's next leader will resist political pressure from the White House; Republicans want assurances the department will operate investigations in an even-handed fashion toward members of both parties.

Barr's past statements about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, in which he has questioned the political tilt of Mueller's team, could give some Democrats fodder to attack Barr's nomination, but several Republican operatives who support Barr for the position noted he once worked alongside Mueller in the Justice Department, and said his track record from the Bush administration should calm any Democratic concerns that the department would see its independence eroded.

One person familiar with the discussions cautioned that while Barr is the leading candidate, the decision is not final and the president could decide to pick someone else.

Another person familiar with the discussions said Barr is "a really serious contender and possibly the front-runner" for the job but stressed it was impossible to predict Trump's pick definitively until it was announced publicly.

Richard Cullen, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who is now in private practice, representing Vice President Mike Pence, said Barr "truly would be the gold standard in terms of what any president of the United States would be looking for in term of experience, judgment and intelligence. He's the real deal."

Those familiar with the discussions said Barr, having already been attorney general, doesn't feel a particular ambition for the position, but does feel a sense of duty to take it if offered.

An alternative candidate is Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, a conservative whose support of the president has won the attention and backing of some inside the White House, these people said.

The current acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, also had hoped to be nominated for the job, according to people familiar with the internal discussions. Whitaker is set to appear today with the president at a law enforcement gathering in Kansas City, Mo.

Even if Barr were announced as the president's choice this week, it could take months for a confirmation vote, given the congressional schedule. In the meantime, Whitaker would stay in that role until a nominee is confirmed. Whitaker's selection, even as a temporary replacement of Jeff Sessions, angered Democrats who question both his resume and the legal justification for the move, given that he was not serving in a Senate-confirmed position. Trump forced out Sessions in early November, after the midterm elections.

George Terwilliger, who served as the No. 2 official in the Justice Department when Barr was attorney general, said Barr would bring "40 years of high level experience, both in government and in business, which gives him a perspective that fits many of this administration's priorities."

"I have no way of knowing if the report that he's a leading candidate is accurate, but if he was, because of both his government and corporate background, he would enjoy widespread support -- both in and outside the legal community," Terwilliger said.

As attorney general in the early 1990s, when crime rates were far higher than they are today, Barr advocated for a get-tough approach and sending repeat offenders to prison for long sentences.

At that time, Mueller led the department's criminal division, reporting directly to Barr. The two worked together on the multiyear investigation into the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

In 2017, when asked by The Washington Post about political donations made by lawyers on the special counsel's team, Barr said "prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party" and added: "I would have liked to see [Mueller] have more balance on this group."

Information for this article was contributed by Sari Horwitz, Rosalind S. Helderman and Colby Itkowitz of The Washington Post.

A Section on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: Barr, AG in '91-'93, said to be Trump's top choice

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