William Barr: the attorney general who has the president's back

Tom McCarthy in New York


When significant portions of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report finally came to light on Thursday, politics observers reeled at its second volume – a 180-page, densely packed synopsis of conduct by Donald Trump that might amount to criminal obstruction of justice.

The initial shock of the allegations – that Trump ordered Mueller’s firing, and then told White House lawyers to conceal that order; that Trump sought to hijack oversight of the Mueller probe; that Trump sought to sway Mueller’s witnesses – soon focused attention on the attorney general, William Barr.

Barr, along with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, was responsible for the decision not to prosecute Trump, despite the preponderance of evidence gathered by Mueller.

“The attorney general did a grave disservice to the country,” Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in a news conference after the release of the report. “The attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer, although he may feel he is.”

Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, went farther. “OUR Attorney General acts as Trump’s defense attorney,” Swalwell tweeted. “He can’t represent both. Barr must resign.”

But to those familiar with Barr and his career, there never was much question as to whether an obstruction-of-justice charge – or any other charge – against the president would materialize, no matter how high the mountain of evidence.

Before Trump picked him to lead the justice department last year, Barr had established a 40-year track record as a Washington insider known, on one hand, for strict criminal justice views – but on the other for arguing the long arm of the law should not reach too far into the White House.

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Barr’s handling of the Mueller report rollout on Thursday seemed sure to cement that legacy. An hour before passing the report to Congress, Barr convened a news conference to describe the contents of the report.

At the news conference, Barr quoted from the Mueller report – highly selectively, it turned out. “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Barr said.

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But those words were only the end of a sentence that began like this: “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts …”

Chuck Rosenberg, a former federal prosecutor who had defended Barr based in part on Barr’s track record as attorney general under George HW Bush, said that Barr’s conduct Thursday was indefensible.

William Barr speaks at a press conference on the Mueller report’s release.

William Barr speaks at a press conference on the Mueller report’s release. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“Barr has gone too far into tank for the president of the United States,” Rosenberg told MSNBC. “I am disappointed. I am chagrined. And I … may just be flat out wrong about Bill Barr being a principled institutionalist.”

Other critics frowned at the pains Barr took at the news conference to plead for sympathy with Trump’s state of mind.

“In assessing the president’s actions discussed in the report it is important to bear in mind the context,” Barr said. “There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.”

The former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah tweeted: “Barr sounded like a defense lawyer. Literally.” She added: “Defense lawyers often say ‘the government didn’t prove’ to focus juries away from what prosecutors did show. That’s what Barr’s whole statement was.”

Warnings about how Barr might handle the Mueller report began to circulate as soon as Trump announced his appointment last December. The journalist Luppe Luppen pointed to a June 2017 interview in which Barr called the obstruction investigation “asinine”. Barr expanded on that view in an ostensibly unsolicited June 2018 memo to the justice department arguing Mueller’s investigation of Trump for alleged obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived”.

That memo seemed to foreclose any idea that as attorney general, Barr would recommend prosecution of the president, analysts said.

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“The new Barr memo makes it clear that his view is outside the mainstream even of conservative, basic unitary executive theory,” Neil Kinkopf, a Georgia State University law professor who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration, told the Guardian in January. “It goes beyond that, to the point where it comes very close to putting the president above the law.”

Barr, 68, was born in New York City and graduated with honors in 1977 from the George Washington University Law School. He worked in the Central Intelligence Agency and on Ronald Reagan’s domestic policy staff before getting a top justice department job under the first president Bush.

As attorney general for just over a year in the early 1990s, Barr was known as an immigration hardliner. According to a 1992 CBS News report that called him “a tough guy who’s not afraid to ruffle feathers”, Barr hired hundreds of new border guards and swore in some of them himself “to underscore he meant business”.

At the end of the first Bush administration, Barr recommended pardons for top-level Reagan officials caught up in the Iran-Contra affair. To some ears, that recommendation was echoed in Barr’s 2018 memo in which he sought to draw limits around the criminal liability of White House officials.

But Barr’s support for Trump went beyond legal theorizing, and included a public campaign in print. In a 2017 Washington Post op-ed, a year before his attorney general nomination, Barr argued in favor of the firing of the former FBI director James Comey. The editorial described a formal chain of command within the justice department, which Barr said Comey violated.

“It is not surprising that Trump would be inclined to make a fresh start at the bureau,” Barr wrote.