WASHINGTON — When William Barr was attorney general in the early 1990s, he was outspoken about some of America’s biggest problems — violent crime, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy. The ‘‘Age of Aquarius,’’ he warned, had given way to crack babies and broken families, misery and squalor.
The rhetoric reflected Barr’s deep-seated beliefs and was typical talk for a conservative Republican at a time when family values and tough-on-crime stances defined the party.
Now, as President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Barr is poised to return to the same job in a dramatically different Washington.
Republicans just pushed through the biggest criminal justice overhaul in a generation, easing prison sentences. Family values are seldom discussed while Trump, twice-divorced and accused of affairs and sexual misconduct, sits in the White House. Serving Trump, who faces intensifying investigations from the department Barr would lead, is unlikely to compare with his tenure under George H.W. Bush.
Trump demands loyalty, breaking with the practice of shielding law enforcement from political influence. He publicly browbeats Justice Department leadership and ousted his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not protecting him in the Russia investigation. Though the pressures on Barr are bound to be enormous if he is confirmed, allies describe him as driven by his commitment to the department and clear-eyed about what is ahead.
‘‘I have no doubt that he’s aware of any unique or unusual challenges that this Justice Department, his Justice Department, will confront,’’ said longtime friend and former colleague Chuck Cooper, who is also Sessions’s lawyer. ‘‘He approaches these challenges as a public servant who loves his country and who’s answering the call to service. That’s the spirit in which Bill Barr is accepting these challenges.’’
The first challenge comes Tuesday when Democrats press him at his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his broad views of presidential power, including an unsolicited memo he sent the Justice Department last year criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the president had sought to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Barr, 68, is likely to win confirmation and, given his past experience, probably won’t face challenges over his qualifications the way other Trump nominees have. Republicans control the Senate and could pick up some support from Democrats eager for the departure of acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Democrats wanted Whitaker to step aside from overseeing Mueller’s investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign, citing Whitaker’s criticism of the inquiry before he joined the department.
Even if Barr doesn’t introduce sweeping policy changes, he might nonetheless have to adjust to the shifting winds of the White House or fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Barr will reassure lawmakers he supports the law, according to a person close to the confirmation process who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. That’s a striking departure from Barr’s insistence as attorney general, in the face of homicide rates that dwarf today’s totals, that ‘‘we are not punitive enough’’ about violent crime.
‘‘He’s very much a law-and-order guy. He believes the primary responsibility of government is to maintain the security of its citizens,’’ said friend Andrew G. McBride, a former Justice Department colleague.
It’s not clear how often he and Trump will interact and under what circumstances. Friends insist he won’t easily bend to the president’s will.
‘‘He can take this without worrying about career advancement,’’ said C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to George H.W. Bush. ‘‘If he were a lot younger, I’m not sure he would have done it.’’