It was a somber day in the Washington National Cathedral Dec. 5 as thousands gathered to mourn the death of former President George H.W. Bush. Beneath the glittering stained-glass windows, the crowd of political luminaries wistfully recalled the gentler era of bipartisanship the late leader represented.
Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, took the moment to reconnect with Bush’s Attorney General, William Barr. Leahy had known the Republican power lawyer for decades. Speculation was swirling about whom President Donald Trump would ask to fill Barr’s old job after Jeff Sessions’ departure. Pulling him aside, Leahy urged Barr to take the post again. “Bill, we need you back,” Leahy said, according to a Justice Department official with knowledge of the conversation. (Leahy’s staff said the Senator does not recall the discussion.)
Barr demurred, but he had a secret that very few of the mourners knew: he had already accepted the job. It hadn’t been an easy choice–Barr had turned Trump down once already. And Barr knew the comity on display at the Bush funeral wouldn’t last. At his youngest daughter’s wedding three days later, shortly after Trump announced his nomination, Barr quipped that at least she was changing her name before it was dragged through the mud at his confirmation hearings. And in fact, when Barr’s nomination came up for a vote two months later, Leahy voted against him, along with nearly every other Democrat.
The partisanship has already intensified now that Barr has become the keeper of the conclusions from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. After nearly two years of work, Mueller submitted his final report to Barr on Friday, March 22. Two days later, Barr sent Congress a four-page letter summarizing Mueller’s findings. The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign or its associates conspired or coordinated with Russia, Barr said, and it was inconclusive on whether Trump obstructed justice. On that question, Mueller laid out the facts on both sides and left it to Barr to render a decision–which Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein did with alacrity, concluding that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Just five weeks into the job, the new Attorney General had helped lift a cloud hanging over the Trump presidency.
Barr’s importance will only grow in the coming weeks, as he determines how much of Mueller’s report to share with the White House, Congress and the American people. He is working on scrubbing Mueller’s report of grand-jury information and details pertaining to ongoing investigations. Trump has claimed victory, saying it “wouldn’t bother” him if Barr wanted to make the whole report public.
Already, Barr’s decision on obstruction has angered congressional Democrats, who blasted him for delivering a verdict in two days on a matter that Mueller spent 22 months probing. Moreover, they note that Barr is a political appointee who wrote a memo last year criticizing Mueller’s obstruction inquiry. “The Attorney General’s comments make it clear that Congress must step in to get the truth,” said House Judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, who said he will call Barr to testify. “We cannot simply rely on what may be a hasty, partisan interpretation of the facts.”
More than politics is at stake in how Barr handles the close of the Mueller probe. The reputation of the Department of Justice, attacked on the one hand for two years by the President who leads it and on the other by Democrats with oversight authority on Capitol Hill, hangs on the Attorney General. So too does the balance of power between the White House and Congress.
But that’s partly why Barr took the job. Close aides say he believes the Justice Department has gone astray, internally and in the public perception, and he wants to bring it back in line. “He is in sync with the law-enforcement goals of the President and the Administration,” Rosenstein tells TIME. “He views this as an opportunity to advance those goals and also to preserve and enhance the reputation of the department.”
What’s clear is that Barr is making history. He alone will decide, on the basis of his experience, beliefs and personality, how this consequential chapter of the Trump presidency plays out. His closest aides recognize the power of the moment. “There’s a lot of things coming down the pike at us, there’s a lot of decisions that are going to need to be made,” admits one, “and it will be kind of viewed through the lens of how [Barr] handles things.”
Barr’s relationship with Trump began nearly two years ago, in June 2017, when he took a meeting at the White House because the President wanted Barr to join his personal legal team. It was a brief interaction, Barr testified at his confirmation hearing in January 2019, during which he declined Trump’s job offer because he “didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.” When Trump was curious about his relationship with Mueller, Barr said he told the President that the special counsel is a “straight shooter.” (Barr was Mueller’s boss as Attorney General under Bush, when Mueller served as head of the criminal division.) Barr gave Trump his phone number and left and didn’t hear from the President again for more than a year. But in the fall of 2018, Trump came calling once more, this time to talk about the Attorney General job.
Barr said no again. He was at an age when his work and personal life had finally achieved an enviable balance. Barr even suggested other contenders to Trump. But as the President continued to look, a chorus of people bombarded both Barr and the White House counsel’s office with calls for Barr to fill the job, according to several people close to Barr. One offering advice was Barr’s friend Robert Kimmitt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. “When he and I spoke about it, I said it’s one of those pristinely binary decisions,” Kimmitt recalls. “It’s great for the country and not as great for you.”
It was in the late fall, at a retreat with the external advisory board to CIA Director Gina Haspel, on which Barr sat, that the lawyer finally acquiesced. As former government officials at the gathering hounded him to take the position, “he finally kind of relented,” says a senior Justice Department official. “A light clicked on in his brain, and he said, ‘Well, maybe I do have to go do this.'” Another Justice Department official says that when people ask Barr now why he changed his mind, he’ll often reply in his typically blunt style, “I just did.”
It’s not surprising it took Barr a while to get there. In normal circumstances, Attorney General is one of the most difficult jobs in government. Nestled within the Executive Branch, the Justice Department is caught between a traditional investigative independence and duty to the President, at whose pleasure the Attorney General serves. It’s a singular job, and a critical one, that relies on the judgment and character of the Attorney General to navigate the relationship.
And these are not normal circumstances. Barr inherited an agency battered by the President, beset by scandals and facing challenges ranging from the Mueller report to criminal-justice reform and immigration enforcement. Barr spent his first weeks back on the job getting briefed up, arriving at the office at around 8 a.m. and leaving at around 7 p.m., according to his chief of staff, learning everything he could about the policy issues at play.
Barr also focused on morale. When he arrived at the northwest-D.C. building for his first day of work in February, he refused the traditional “clap in” for incoming Attorneys General and instead decided to host a three-hour reception for career officials and political appointees. Aides say he paid for the wine and snacks out of his own pocket. Since then, he has organized a weekly lunch for top department officials, and he typically meets with at least one U.S. Attorney each day.
By far the hardest challenge Barr faces is bringing the special-counsel process to a smooth conclusion. The responsibility of overseeing it devoured his immediate predecessors. Sessions was mercilessly attacked by Trump for recusing himself, acting AG Matthew Whitaker was excoriated by congressional Democrats for being too close to Trump, and Deputy AG Rosenstein plans to leave soon. (Perhaps in a nod to the pressures of the job, Rosenstein keeps a small sign in his office that says KEEP MOVING FORWARD.)
The first big test began early on Friday afternoon, March 22, when a security officer from the special counsel’s office delivered Mueller’s report. At 4:30 p.m., Rosenstein called Mueller to thank him for his service, according to a DOJ official. A few minutes later, Barr’s chief of staff, Brian Rabbitt, called Trump’s lawyer Emmet Flood to alert him that the report had arrived.
Then Barr, Rosenstein and their top advisers settled in to review what one DOJ official describes as a “comprehensive” report and to draft a letter to Congress outlining Mueller’s principal findings. They worked into the evening on Friday and then all day Saturday, pausing only to eat sandwiches from Au Bon Pain for lunch. By Sunday afternoon, the letter to Congress was done. Rabbitt called Flood at around 3 p.m. to tell the President’s lawyer the conclusions, according to a DOJ official, and soon after, the four-page note was made public. From there, Barr went to church for Sunday evening Mass before heading to an oyster bar for dinner.
Now Barr has sole discretion over what to do with Mueller’s report. The regulations governing the dénouement of the special counsel’s work are spare. Barr will decide how much of the report to share. And House Democrats are eager to interrogate him about those decisions. “There are so many profoundly serious questions that the letter glosses over,” says Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a former state attorney general and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “What Barr has done essentially is to frame the message without providing any substance. He has created headlines without access to the real information. The letter raises more questions than provides answers.”
Barr has already realized some of Democrats’ biggest fears on a key aspect of Mueller’s investigation. In June 2018, Barr wrote an unsolicited memo to Rosenstein that was skeptical of the obstruction angle of Mueller’s probe. “Mueller’s obstruction theory is fatally misconceived,” Barr wrote in the memo–which was shared with some of Trump’s lawyers–arguing that it would damage the institution of the presidency.
In Barr’s letter to Congress, the public learned that Mueller did not come to a conclusion either way on whether Trump obstructed justice and instead left that decision to Barr. After reviewing the evidence with Rosenstein over the course of a weekend, Barr wrote that it was “not sufficient” to determine obstruction.
“We knew from his confirmation hearing that Attorney General Barr would never conclude the President obstructed justice,” said Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, “a decision which he appears to have made with astonishing speed.”
A Justice Department official says the decision was not as swift as it might seem. Barr and Rosenstein received a briefing from Mueller three weeks earlier, according to the official, during which the special counsel informed them that he would not be making a judgment on whether Trump’s conduct constituted obstruction. That gave Barr time to prepare. “It would be silly to think that Bill Barr made his decision out of thin air,” the official says. The official also notes that most of the facts Barr weighed on this matter were publicly available: “You all know basically almost as much as we do.”
Barr is in the twilight of a career that has contained no shortage of tough decisions. As Attorney General under Bush, he appointed three special counsels, including one to probe the House banking scandal in 1992. He handles issues quickly and decisively, former colleagues say. “He copes with difficult situations very calmly,” says James Richmond, who oversaw prosecutions arising from the savings-and-loan crisis under Barr in the early 1990s. “When he blows up, he blows up and it’s over. It doesn’t go beyond a minute or two, because he realizes it’s the bigger issue that he’s got to solve.”
Barr was born in 1950 and grew up on New York’s Upper West Side. His parents were both educators, but Barr’s interest in government and Republican politics developed early. In elementary school, he decided he supported Richard Nixon, according to a 1991 Washington Post article. In high school, he told his guidance counselor he wanted to lead the CIA one day.
In order to make that happen, he focused on Chinese studies at Columbia University in both undergraduate and graduate school. He joined the CIA in 1973, serving in the Chinese unit and its legislative-affairs office. It was a critical period that foreshadowed his current challenge. The Church Committee was probing the CIA’s extrajudicial activities, from testing LSD on unwitting American subjects to spying on citizens. Barr had a front-row seat as the Legislative and Executive branches negotiated a new balance of power to protect civil liberties and preserve the national-security authority of the President.
Barr attended law school at night while he worked at the agency, leaving in 1977 for a clerkship with Judge Malcolm Wilkey on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Later he served in President Ronald Reagan’s Administration in 1982 and then entered private practice before becoming head of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel in 1989. From there, his rise through the Justice Department was meteoric. He became Deputy Attorney General in 1990 and took the top job the year after that. After he left the Justice Department at the end of the first Bush Administration, Barr became executive vice president and general counsel of GTE Corp., going on to become general counsel of Verizon when GTE merged with Bell Atlantic in 2000 to form the combined company.
Barr could be intimidating, former colleagues say, but he had a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor and an approachable leadership style. “He was not hierarchical at all,” says Daniel Levin, who served as Barr’s chief of staff the last time he was Attorney General and is now a partner at White & Case. “He made it absolutely clear I wasn’t a gatekeeper and I was not to keep anybody out who needed to see or wanted to see him.”
In 1992, Los Angeles erupted into riots after a jury acquitted four police officers of beating Rodney King. Barr decided he needed to intervene. Just 41 years old and in his second year as Attorney General, he had to figure out how to marshal the force of the federal government to stabilize the crisis. So he sent one of his most trusted lieutenants to L.A. to handle the situation from the ground: Robert Mueller, then head of DOJ’s criminal division.
Many of the weighty decisions Barr faced during his first stint as Attorney General he made in consultation with Mueller, who became a close enough friend that Mueller attended two of Barr’s daughters’ weddings–though the two men have avoided socializing in the current circumstances. Barr led the department’s response to health care fraud. He also pushed a variety of tough-on-crime policies, including enforcing Project Triggerlock, which prosecuted repeat offenders under federal weapons laws to impose harsher sentences.
In 1992, Barr issued a memo titled “The Case for More Incarceration.” It has proved controversial. Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who is running for President, criticized Barr for it during the Attorney General’s confirmation process. Some who served with Barr last time say his tough-on-crime stance fit broadly with the enforcement philosophy of the era, even if Barr was on the stricter side. “I didn’t see it as having a racial bent,” says Wayne Budd, who is African American and served as Associate Attorney General under Barr in 1992.
Barr is a devout Catholic and loyal family man, friends say, who likes to go bird hunting and often entertains people by telling stories or talking about military and European history. He’s also an accomplished bagpiper who’s been known to pipe in competitions, at family events and at parties. (During the Bush Administration, Barr was once piping at a Christmas party when he was suddenly called into the Situation Room, and he had to race to change out of his kilt.)
His jocular side can also mask a certain ferocity. In 1991, while serving as acting Attorney General, Barr authorized a dangerous predawn FBI raid on a federal prison in Alabama to confront a deteriorating hostage situation. Everyone was freed, and there were no fatalities. “He’s one of those guys who can make very tough decisions and doesn’t have to play Hamlet,” says Christopher Landau, who knew Barr from their time together at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. “He’s a hard-ass.”
Barr’s role in this drama is far from over. His next big decision will be over what details from the full Mueller report the White House can suppress. It’s an open question whether Barr will send the report to Trump’s lawyers before Congress so that they can decide whether to assert Executive privilege. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said they need to “make sure we’re protecting the office of the presidency” as they consider Executive-privilege questions, and Democrats are worried that Barr’s belief in a strong executive will prompt him to defer to the White House on that score. “There has to be some reasonable opportunity to review and assert Executive privilege, but it should be denied as much as possible,” says Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “That’s where I think the ideological views of the Attorney General may have the greatest potential to threaten the transparency” of the report.
Many congressional Democrats are already insisting that Congress be provided with both Mueller’s full report and the underlying documents. Barr will also have to decide whether to heed congressional summonses to testify under oath about the investigation–and he may play a role in deciding whether Mueller testifies as well. Some congressional Democrats have threatened to issue subpoenas if they don’t get the documents in a timely manner, but subpoenas are difficult to enforce. Depending on how aggressive Barr’s posture is toward Congress, the fight could end up in court.
It’s a multifront war, even before considering the fact that Trump still faces ongoing investigations in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which also reports to Barr. Many of Barr’s friends and former colleagues say he is calm in times of stress. The pressure focuses his mind, they say, and accelerates his decisionmaking process rather than paralyzing it. He’ll need that skill more than ever. The Attorney General, who had to be talked into taking the job, will have a big role in shaping the presidency of the man who hired him.
With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington