Could Trump’s Next Attorney General Actually Be Worse Than Jeff Sessions?

Published on January 14, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
William Barr played a key role in the expansion of the war on drugs and America's incarceration crisis. Has he learned his lesson? (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Another year, another televised tragicomic hearing to fill one of our nation’s highest offices.

One legal analyst describes nominee William Barr as 'Sessions without baggage.'

As former—and possibly future—US Attorney General William Barr prepares to field two days of questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee starting Tuesday morning, Leafly is taking a look back at how Trump’s AG nominee compares to his predecessor Jeff Sessions—as well to his Bush Sr.-era self—on the most critical issues facing cannabis today.

A Long Public Record

As an attorney, Verizon senior executive, and serving AG under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, Barr has made a public impression over the years as an old-school Republican conservative.

The New York City-born lawyer is often described as a consistent conservative on state and federal matters, but also an avid proponent of the legal powers of the executive branch, including the use of presidential pardons to sweep away the wrongdoing of those close to the White House. He’s also a bagpiper and a friend of Robert Mueller, whose investigation he criticized alongside the FBI (and others) in a series of public moves last year.

During his time as deputy and full-on AG, Barr faced criticism (again, controversial pardons aside) over the Justice Department’s physical and legal efforts to combat “gang violence” and keep border-area migrants, as well as refugeeswith HIV/AIDS, out of the country. During those years, Barr has said, he also “personally likened [drug crises] to terrorism.”

Incidentally, Barr’s daughter Mary Daly, who may or may not wear similar glasses, is currently a Justice Department point person on opioids. Like her father, who spent several years helping orchestrate America’s war on drugs (and two years leading it), she has advocated for the role of firm sentencing in someday relieving Americans’ drug problems.

Is Barr ‘Sessions Lite,’ or Something Worse?

Depending who you ask in the fields of cannabis and politics, the answer is basically “yes.”

During his two years as US Attorney General in the early 1990s, Barr exhibited a long-cultivated unawareness of the nuances and cold facts around drugs, medicine, incarceration, immigration, racism, and related human casualties. More recently, Barr has made a point of voicing his support for maintaining the justice system’s stricter aspects, such as minimum sentencing rules.

As the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) pointed out recently, Barr signed a letter in 2015 to then-Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid voicing opposition to a sentencing reform bill, arguing: “Our system of justice is not broken. Mandatory minimums and proactive law enforcement measures have caused a dramatic reduction in crime over the past 25 years, an achievement we cannot afford to give back.”

Mass Incarceration? Two Thumbs Up

Ahead of Tuesday’s opening hearing, Michael Collins, Director of National Affairs for the DPA, noted that Barr “has long been a cheerleader for mass incarceration and the war on drugs,” and holds “appalling views on drug policy and criminal justice.” Collins urged members of the Senate not to give Barr “an easy ride like they did with Jeff Sessions.”

Mark Joseph Stern, legal affairs writer for Slate, described Trump’s nominee as “Sessions without baggage.”

“At best,” Stern wrote, “Barr will competently execute Sessions’ brutal agenda. At worst, he will run interference for Trump behind the scenes in a manner that stretches the boundaries of executive authority.”

Justin Strekal, Political Director for NORML, seemed to hope for the least possible harm from a nominee who gives little hope for progress on sentencing and drug law reform. “William Barr is not our friend,” Strekal wrote in an email to Leafly. “The question is, will he choose to be our enemy?”

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Janet Burns
Janet Burns
Janet Burns is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who finds drugs, tech, labor, and culture extremely interesting, among other things. She also hosts the cannabis news and conversation podcast The Toke.
View Janet Burns's articles
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