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- 77th and 85th United States Attorney General
- 45th president of the United States (2017–2021)
Attorney General William Barr is leaving his position, a decision that follows months of complaints from President Donald Trump about the administration’s top lawyer.
The cordial tone of Trump’s tweet on Monday afternoon announcing Barr’s exit was in marked contrast to the president’s public scolding of the attorney general in recent weeks. In Trump’s telling, Barr had failed to make public a financial crimes investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter that was ongoing before the election and failed to muster the Justice Department in support of Trump’s legal campaign to upend the election results.
Rather than echo those complaints, and earlier ones about Barr’s refusal to indict the president’s political adversaries, Trump’s announcement praised the attorney general’s record and suggested nothing was amiss.
“Just had a very nice meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr at the White House,” Trump tweeted. “Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!”
In a two-page letter that Trump also tweeted out, the attorney general didn’t explicitly say he was resigning, but said he would “spend the next week wrapping up a few remaining matters important to the Administration and depart on Dec. 23.”
Trump had grown so frustrated with Barr that he was considering firing him, but had not decided by Friday whether to do so, a friend of the president’s said. Trump remained angry about the attorney general's remarks that the Justice Department had found no evidence of major election fraud, the associate added.
Over the past few days, Trump continued to criticize Barr both publicly and privately.
“Why didn’t Bill Barr reveal the truth to the public, before the Election, about Hunter Biden,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Joe was lying on the debate stage that nothing was wrong, or going on — Press confirmed. Big disadvantage for Republicans at the polls!”
Barr’s letter on Monday confirming his departure opened with an allusion to Trump’s insistent but baseless claims that the election was stolen, and included a vague description of the Justice Department’s ongoing inquiries into such episodes. The letter did not repeat or disavow Barr’s statement in an interview two weeks ago that he’d seen no indication of “widespread” fraud.
“I appreciate the opportunity to update you this afternoon on the Department’s review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued,” Barr wrote. “At a time when the country is so deeply divided, it is incumbent on all levels of government, and all agencies acting within their purview, to do all we can to assure the integrity of elections and promote public confidence in their outcome.”
Barr also used the letter to remind Trump of the reason the pair had a strong relationship early on: Barr’s effort to discredit the Mueller probe. Barr characterized the investigation of Trump’s campaign as part of a “partisan onslaught.”
“The nadir of this campaign was the effort to cripple, if not oust, your administration with frenzied and baseless accusations of collusion with Russia,” Barr wrote.
Senior administration officials said they did not believe that Trump was involved in formulating Barr’s letter. “The AG is capable of writing his own letter,” one person close to the president said.
Barr’s exit followed a New York Times report that seemed to preview the move, followed by another story days later saying the attorney general planned to serve out his term.
Nevertheless, Barr’s departure seemed to take officials on Capitol Hill by surprise. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — a top Trump ally and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — said he was not expecting the announcement
“I just think that Bill Barr’s got a lot to be proud of,” Graham told reporters. “He’s done a good job trying to clean up the mess created by Crossfire Hurricane,” he said, using the FBI’s codename for the Trump-Russia investigation.
Barr’s departure upends the leadership of the Justice Department at a sensitive moment in the transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, a further indication of Trump’s attempt to erode its independence in the waning weeks of his term.
The departure also raises the specter of a potential wave of presidential pardons, common in the closing days of most modern presidencies. Though Trump has largely cut out the Justice Department from his most politically sensitive pardon deliberations, Barr’s exit ensures he won’t be at the helm when Trump begins his final burst.
While some Trump critics feared he might install a marginally qualified loyalist to oversee the Justice Department during the administration’s final weeks, Trump stuck to the normal order of succession at the agency and said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen would become acting attorney general.
Barr and Trump had a far stronger relationship than Trump maintained with Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, whom Trump frequently attacked before firing him after the 2018 midterms. Trump initially heaped praise on Barr for his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, defusing its harsh conclusions in a misleading statement issued a month before the report’s public release early last year. Barr also defused the most threatening aspect of the report for Trump, declaring that there was no basis to prosecute the president for obstruction, despite evidence that pointed toward multiple potential offenses.
But over time, an obvious strain developed in their ties.
Barr was perturbed by Trump’s frequent public commentary about the Justice Department and its cases, including his repeated criticism of department prosecutors and judges involved in cases against Trump allies like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime adviser Roger Stone.
Barr repeatedly asked Trump directly and through others to rein in the commentary, according to officials familiar with the discussions, but the entreaties seemed to have no impact. In many cases, the attorney general appeared to agree with the president’s critiques, but the perception of the White House directing the department’s actions in criminal cases led to a near revolt among rank-and-file Justice Department personnel.
Barr’s frustration with Trump boiled over publicly in February, when the attorney general invited in a TV interviewer and seemed to threaten to resign.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC News. He added that the chief executive’s public commentary made it “impossible for me to do my job.”
The unusual, public brushback of the president from one of his own Cabinet members appeared to have little effect on Trump, but even as his commentary continued, Barr did not resign and pressed on in his post for almost a year.
As the election neared, tension again seemed to grow, with Trump angry at the Justice Department’s failure to take public steps that might aid his reelection bid. In particular, Trump fumed at Barr’s failure to release the findings of an investigation that Barr instructed prosecutor John Durham to conduct into the origins of the FBI probe of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Bill Barr can go down as the greatest attorney general in the history of our country or he can go down as just another guy. It depends,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News in late August. “They have all the stuff — you don’t need anything else. You know, they want everything. You don’t need anything else. They all lied to Congress. They were liars.”
Weeks later, Trump specifically called for former President Barack Obama and Biden to be charged with crimes.
“These people should be indicted,” Trump told Fox Business Channel.
“This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. And that includes Obama and it includes Biden.”
But as far back as May, Barr had made clear that, whatever the outcome of Durham’s probe, criminal charges against Obama and Biden were not in the cards.
Trump allies clung to hopes of a report from Durham that would highlight what they contend were abuses in the Russia investigation, but no such report emerged before the election, further frustrating the president. Barr revealed only in the weeks after the election that he had elevated Durham’s investigation into a full-fledged special counsel probe, which is likely to linger past Biden’s inauguration next month.
Days after the election — with Trump publicly seething about the results and trying to delegitimize Biden’s victory by lodging baseless claims of widespread fraud — Barr angered Trump yet again.
“To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have affected a different outcome in the election,” Barr told The Associated Press.
Barr had sounded frequent alarms in advance of the election about the potential for fraud, particularly through foreign interference in mail-in balloting, infuriating Democrats who emphasized there was no evidence such a plot was afoot.
The final straw for Trump appeared to be Barr’s decision not to amplify election-season news reports about Biden’s son, Hunter, by confirming a federal investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings. Though indications of an ongoing inquiry had emerged during the campaign, the Justice Department and FBI remained largely silent about them.
Rumors of such a probe triggered a frenzy in pro-Trump circles prior to the election, and some social media sites angered Republicans by suppressing news stories about emails that were allegedly found on a laptop Hunter Biden left for repair but never picked up.
In the lead-up to last month’s vote, only one news outlet, Sinclair Broadcast Group, released a report explicitly asserting that a federal investigation was ongoing. The story, released five days before the election, said an unidentified Justice Department official confirmed the probe.
However, the story never got widespread traction, and Barr aides later said he had sought to keep it under wraps during the election, in accordance with a Justice Department policy against taking overt investigative steps that could roil the vote.
In addition to defanging the Mueller report, Barr intervened in multiple matters crucial to Trump and his political allies.
He unilaterally appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to review the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, known as Crossfire Hurricane — and in October, he elevated Durham’s ongoing inquiry into a full-fledged special counsel investigation.
Barr also appointed U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen to review the FBI’s handling of the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a probe that became the basis of Barr’s decision to recommend dismissing charges against him. The U.S. District Court judge in that case, Emmet Sullivan, considered the Justice Department’s reasons as “dubious” and likely a pretextual effort to protect an ally of the president, but he ultimately dropped the matter after Trump pardoned Flynn.
And Barr also generated furious criticism after he played a role in a harsh crackdown on peaceful protesters near White House grounds in June.
Democrats noted with irony that Barr had been a loyal Trump ally in most respects but still managed to find himself crossways with the president.
“From misleading the American public about the Mueller report to his dangerous efforts to overturn COVID safety measures, from his callous disregard for civil rights to his rampant politicization of the Justice Department, William Barr was willing to do the President’s bidding on every front but one,” said Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Barr refused to play along with President Trump’s nonsensical claims to have won the election. He is now out as Attorney General one month early.”
Barr is only the second person in American history to serve as attorney general twice. He held the top law-enforcement post from 1989 to 1991 under President George H.W. Bush before accepting Trump’s nomination to return to the job early last year.
Barr often projected an air of nonchalance about both Democrats’ attacks on him and the president’s evident fury at the Justice Department for not doing enough to skewer his enemies.
During his confirmation hearing last year, Barr said he was a good pick for attorney general because he was not looking to use the job as a stepping stone to another one, but instead as the capstone to his career.
“I feel I am in a position in life,” Barr said, “where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences in the sense that. … I can truly be independent.”
Anita Kumar, Gabby Orr and Matthew Choi contributed to this report.