Biden Attorney General Will Be Greeted With Politically Challenging Inbox of Cases


President-elect

Joe Biden

has told advisers that he doesn’t want his administration to be overshadowed by politically sensitive investigations at the Justice Department, yet his attorney general will quickly be confronted by a number of them.

Continuing federal investigations into both President

Trump’s

personal attorney,

Rudy Giuliani,

and Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, will pose an immediate test for whomever the president-elect chooses to run the Justice Department.

The new attorney general also will face a continuing special counsel investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election. In addition, he or she will have to decide whether to continue to pursue some civil lawsuits filed by the Trump Justice Department that some officials viewed as more aligned with the president’s personal interests than with those of the federal government.

While Mr. Biden has yet to name his nominee for attorney general, he has said he intends to leave tough calls about politically fraught probes to his top prosecutor, which aides say is meant to signal a departure from what they see as the persistent undermining of the agency’s traditional independence from the White House under former Attorney General

William Barr.

Mr. Barr departed from his post on Wednesday, and Mr. Trump appointed his deputy,

Jeffrey Rosen,

as acting attorney general. While current and former department officials don’t expect Mr. Rosen’s policies to differ greatly from Mr. Barr’s, his decisions in coming weeks could add to the challenges facing his successor.

Former Attorney General William Barr has been criticized within the Justice Department for overruling the decisions of career prosecutors.



Photo:

Michael Reynolds/Associated Press

Alabama Sen.

Doug Jones,

a former federal prosecutor and close friend of Mr. Biden, and

Merrick Garland,

chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, are among the top contenders to be Mr. Biden’s attorney general. Former Deputy Attorney General

Sally Yates

also remains under consideration. “There is not an obvious choice in my mind,” Mr. Biden said this week.

While policy priorities often shift in conjunction with the agenda of a new White House, DOJ investigations that are active at the end of an administration typically endure into the next one. Sensitive investigations are being handled by career prosecutors, and Biden advisers say he wants an attorney general who won’t make decisions in criminal matters based on politics.

Two lawsuits against major companies—an antitrust case against search giant Google, and a lawsuit filed Tuesday accusing the mega retailer

Walmart Inc.

of helping to fuel the opioid epidemic through its approach to its pharmacies—will likely proceed with little change from one administration to the next, a person familiar with the matter said.

Still, the attorney general will need to sign off on some of the toughest decisions and present the findings to the public. Former DOJ officials say they expect federal prosecutors to have greater communication with top department officials in Washington about developments in high-profile probes.

Mr. Barr was criticized within the department for overruling the decisions of career prosecutors, who say they are looking to Mr. Biden’s attorney general to signal that he or she will consider their guidance. Mr. Barr has said he believed it was his duty to correct what he saw as overreach by prosecutors and flaws in the department’s approach to some cases.

A first test for Mr. Biden’s attorney general will be how to approach a disparate set of investigations involving the business and financial dealings of Mr. Biden’s son that have been continuing since at least 2018, people familiar with the matter said.

Hunter Biden

has denied wrongdoing and the president-elect has expressed confidence in his son.

Attorney General William Barr said Monday he won’t appoint a special counsel to investigate election fraud or allegations against President-elect Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Photo: Michael Reynolds/Bloomberg News

Mr. Biden has given no public indication of how he wants his attorney general to handle the probes and told reporters Tuesday that he wouldn’t discuss the investigations with prospective candidates.

“The attorney general of the United States of America is not the president’s lawyer,” Mr. Biden said. “I will appoint someone who I expect to enforce the law as the law is written, not guided by me.”

Mr. Trump has also been pushing for Mr. Barr, and now Mr. Rosen, to appoint a special counsel who would pursue the Hunter Biden investigation with a level of independence not subject to day-to-day supervision by agency officials, and who could only be removed by the attorney general for misconduct or a conflict of interest.

Mr. Barr said this week that he didn’t see the need to appoint a special counsel and refused to do so before he left office. Mr. Rosen declined to answer whether he would appoint one in an interview with Reuters last week.

In the meantime, one investigation related to Hunter Biden is being run by the office of Delaware U.S. attorney

David C. Weiss,

a longtime federal prosecutor who was appointed to his role by Mr. Trump but also served in the post in an acting capacity under former President

Barack Obama.

For that reason, current and former Justice Department officials view him as largely apolitical and not inclined to change the course of an investigation for a new administration.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are also examining Hunter Biden’s business and financial dealings, as part of a broader criminal investigation that two people familiar with the matter described as an international financial investigation that had been going on for at least a year. Hunter Biden was never a specific target for criminal prosecution, the people said.

In July,

Audrey Strauss

became the acting U.S. Attorney in Manhattan after Mr. Trump fired her predecessor,

Geoffrey Berman.

Her term was set to expire in mid-January. On Tuesday, federal judges in Manhattan formally appointed Ms. Strauss to the post, which means she will lead the office at least until Mr. Biden can fill the post with his own candidate.

Mr. Biden could also choose to keep Ms. Strauss in that role. She is a Democrat and widely respected within the office. Mr. Berman has said he was relieved that Ms. Strauss succeeded him because he trusted her to stay the course on a number of politically sensitive investigations.

The Biden Justice Department will also be under pressure from many Democrats to investigate a variety of allegations of misconduct committed by Mr. Trump and his administration.

Mr. Trump, for example, has been implicated in a federal crime by his former lawyer

Michael Cohen,

who was convicted of campaign-finance violations and other charges. Mr. Cohen has said he committed the campaign-finance violations at Mr. Trump’s direction, a claim prosecutors later affirmed. Mr. Trump has denied wrongdoing.

Mr. Biden has said only that he would leave that choice to his attorney general, and signaled privately that he doesn’t want investigations into Mr. Trump to dominate his administration, advisers say.

Separately, Manhattan federal prosecutors have brought charges against Florida businessmen who worked alongside Mr. Giuliani to push for investigations into Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. That case is set to go to trial next year; one of the defendants has pleaded guilty.

As part of that investigation, prosecutors and agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation examined Mr. Giuliani’s business dealings and political activities, to see if he had violated federal lobbying laws and other matters, The Wall Street Journal has reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Giuliani hasn’t been charged in the matter and has denied wrongdoing. Mr. Trump has been discussing with advisers the possibility of preemptively pardoning him, which would likely end any legal jeopardy for Mr. Giuliani.

Meanwhile, Mr. Barr announced this month that he had named as special counsel Connecticut U.S. Attorney

John Durham,

whom he picked last year to examine the origins of the FBI’s 2016 probe that led to the appointment of another special counsel,

Robert Mueller.

Mr. Mueller showed that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and detailed contacts between the Russian operatives and members of the Trump campaign, but said the evidence didn’t establish a conspiracy or coordination between the two.

Mr. Biden’s attorney general will now be the one to handle Mr. Durham’s findings.

More on Joe Biden’s Transition

Write to Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com

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