Barr Confirmed as U.S. Attorney General

The Senate has confirmed William Barr as the next attorney general, succeeding Jeff Sessions and supplanting acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker.

The vote was 54-45 (there are 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Dems).

Barr is a familiar face, both at the DOC where he was attorney general under George H.W. Bush, and in communications circles, where he was a Verizon Communications executive and a member of the Time Warner board. Barr filed an affidavit in the AT&T-Time Warner legal case (Justice unsuccessfully challenged the deal and is still challenging it), taking issue with DOJ antitrust chief Makan Delrahim's characterization of a meeting about the deal where Barr was also in attendance.

Barr also told the Senate he was concerned that the Justice Department's antitrust division was not engaging seriously with some of AT&T-Time Warner's arguments (about why the merger did not violate antitrust).

Barr said in that affidavit that Delrahim's version was "inaccurate and incomplete," and that his discomfort at that meeting stemmed from Barr's concerns that "Mr. Delrahim's position about the alleged harms from the merger and his inexplicable … rejection of remedies short of extreme divestitures were the product not of a well-versed substantive analysis, but rather political or other motivation."

Barr promised at his confirmation hearing that he would recuse himself from any matters related to Justice's ongoing legal challenge of that merger.

Barr at his confirmation, under questioning, particularly from now-presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), also declined to rule out jailing reporters "for doing their jobs." He said he could conceive of situations where as a last resort and where a news organization had "run through a red flag" and where "putting out that stuff will hurt the country," a journalist could be held in contempt. Klobuchar said she would follow up with him on that point.

Barr has said he has concerns about the "danger" of using tech from Chinese telecoms ZTE and Huawei in U.S. networks. ZTE and Huawei have been the targets of various government efforts to disentangle them from U.S. tech, though with some pushback from the White House in the case of ZTE.

He also signaled at his confirmation hearing that Silicon Valley giants deserve Justice Department scrutiny.

"I don't think big is necessarily bad," he said, "but I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers."

Many in Congress on both sides of the aisle have been wondering that too, which is why the CEOs of Facebook and Google have testified on issues ranging from privacy to cybersecurity to election meddling and content control.

Delrahim last week agreed that big was not necessarily bad, either, so they are on the same page.

Klobuchar, one of the 45 no votes, explained her opposition: “Mr. Barr’s record on critical issues like immigration, his 19-page memo on [Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian election meddling], and his past actions give me grave doubts about his respect for Congress’ power when it comes to overseeing the Executive Branch. This is not a time where Congress can take its responsibilities or duties lightly. This is not the time to install an attorney general who has repeatedly expressed a view of unfettered executive power. That is why I voted against this nomination.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.