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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, William Barr, once questioned the value of a wall along the Mexican border similar to the one the president has advocated, describing the idea as "overkill."
Barr was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush when he was asked in a Feb. 24, 1992, interview whether he supported a proposal from Republican presidential challenger Pat Buchanan to erect a barrier of ditches and fences along the border to stop illegal immigration.
"I don't think it's necessary. I think that's overkill to put a barrier from one side of the border to the other," Barr replied on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" on PBS. "In fact, the problem with illegal immigration across the border is really confined to major metropolitan areas. Illegal immigrants do not cross in the middle of the desert and walk hundreds of miles," instead choosing more "certain specified routes."
Those routes through more populated areas have since largely been closed off, pushing migrants to riskier desert routes.
Other public statements by Barr from his tenure as attorney general and within the last year suggest a hardened immigration approach more in line with the broader security measures Trump and his advisers have discussed.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on whether Barr's views on a wall have changed, but pointed to other comments from his tenure in which he described fences as effective in stopping drugs and illegal immigration. As attorney general, he also announced the hiring of additional agents to patrol the border and promoted upgraded fencing and investments in sensors and other technology.
Barr's positions on immigration are significant because of the Justice Department's role in defending and enforcing administration policies and because border security has been a top priority of Trump's White House. While the Justice Department today prosecutes people who cross the border illegally and defends the administration's policies, it was more directly involved in immigration enforcement during Barr's earlier tenure as attorney general — 1991 to 1993 — because it included the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That agency was disbanded and its responsibilities largely folded into the Department of Homeland Security following the 9/11 attacks.
Barr's past comments on the effectiveness of a wall reflect a nuance often missing from Trump's rhetoric, who made the construction of a "big beautiful wall" of concrete and steel a centerpiece of his campaign, and who has more recently cited a lack of additional funding for it as the reason for partially shutting down the government.
The president selected Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general after forcing Sessions out over Trump's lingering outrage for his recusal from the Russia investigation. A transcript of the PBS interview was included in thousands of pages of documents Barr produced to the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of a confirmation hearing.
Trump's ambition for a wall has given way to a more modest reality, with the president now describing the barrier as "artistically designed steel slats" and saying he doesn't care what people call it.
His former chief of staff John Kelly told The Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that Trump had abandoned the notion of "a solid concrete wall early on in the administration."
Trump seemed to respond to Kelly with a tweet Monday morning saying "an all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED."
Whatever the terminology, border security remains the central sticking point in the partial government shutdown. Trump is seeking $5 billion for a wall. Newly empowered congressional Democrats have resisted the demand in favor of enhanced technology.
In the 1992 interview with PBS host Jim Lehrer, Barr said the Justice Department was taking steps to control illegal immigration and that "there are some barriers that have reduced violence and made it easier to interdict the aliens crossing."
But he expressed ambivalence about an expansive wall, saying, "They generally try to go up through certain specified routes and, in fact, we're only talking about a 200-mile area where there's appreciable crossings, illegal crossings, and in fact, 40 to 50 percent of the illegal crossings in the United States occur on a 14-mile stretch south of San Diego."
Even if Barr does not embrace a sprawling border wall, there are other indications his immigration views won't depart much from the aggressive stance of the White House and of Sessions, whose Justice Department defended a travel ban that blocked arrivals from some Muslim-majority countries and backed a since-abandoned enforcement policy that separated children from parents at the border.
Barr defended the legality of Trump's travel ban in a January 2017 Washington Post opinion piece, saying complaints that it was discriminatory were "baseless" since only a handful of countries were singled out and the criterion for their inclusion "was not that they were Muslim but that the risk of terrorist infiltration from these countries is especially high." He and other recent Republican attorneys general praised Sessions in a separate op-ed for "attacking the rampant illegality that riddled our immigration system."