William Barr Is Undermining His Own Justice Department to Protect Trump

Jay Willis

For more than a year, the Department of Justice has been reviewing whether the FBI had enough evidence to open its 2016 investigation of Donald Trump's links to Russian meddling in the most recent presidential election. This review was launched in early 2018 at the request of then-attorney general Jeff Sessions and Republican members of Congress, and in response to persistent allegations from Trump and his allies that the federal scrutiny his campaign attracted was the product of a Deep State witch hunt.

In his soon-to-be released report, the department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, reportedly reaches the opposite conclusion: that law enforcement officials were indeed justified in investigating the then-candidate's inner circle, and that political bias did not play a role in the process. This effectively throws cold water on one of Trump's favorite conspiracy theories, and according to the Washington Post, the current attorney general, William Barr, is not especially satisfied with this result.

The attorney general has privately contended that Horowitz does not have enough information to reach the conclusion the FBI had enough details in hand at the time to justify opening such a probe. He argues that other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA, may hold significant information that could alter Horo­witz’s conclusion on that point, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Once the draft is finalized, the Post says, Barr could make his alleged objections known in a letter that would become part of the report. (Including a response from the department is a customary part of putting together final inspector general reports.) Barr could also make a public statement in lieu of taking this formal step.

Since becoming the nation's chief law enforcement official earlier this year, Barr has consistently acted as a de facto personal attorney to the president, reliably ignoring the department's tradition of independence from politics. He was tapped for the job thanks in part to an unsolicited memo he wrote, as a private citizen, arguing that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump's alleged election-meddling and justice-obstructing was "fatally misconceived." Later, his misleading four-page summary of the Mueller report helped Trump establish a no-collusion-no-obstruction narrative weeks before the report's public release, which revealed that the special counsel was far more critical of the president than Barr let on.

Barr's enthusiasm for defending Trump extends to voicing persistent suspicions about the FBI's investigation of Trump, too. Durg a Senate hearing in April, Barr stated his belief that law enforcement "spied" on the Trump campaign, lending official credibility to the right-wing conspiracy theory that Clinton-friendly FBI officials abused their powers to sabotage Trump's chances at winning the White House, and then created the Russia election interference story to cover up their wronging. Even though Horowitz's investigation was already underway, Barr launched a parallel probe of the FBI earlier this year, raising the obvious question of what, exactly, he hoped to find that he feared an independent investigation would not.

In the months since, Barr has even tried to enlist foreign leaders to help with this effort. In a phone call, he pushed Australia's prime minister for information that might discredit the Mueller probe, and traveled to Italy to meet with government officials and make his pitch in person. The New York Times reports that Barr's skepticism of Horowitz's work are informed by evidence gleaned from this separate, ongoing effort—one Barr just so happens to be personally championing.

When Barr was appointed to his current position, his supporters touted him as a staunch institutionalist—a person with a deep and abiding respect for the traditions of the Department of Justice. "He has integrity. He has stature," one of his former colleagues told NPR in January. "He's nobody's today." Barr, after all, had served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, and could be trusted to put the department's reputation first. In a New York Times op-ed, former independent counsel Kenneth Starr argued that Barr's "deep respect for the law" was so beyond reproach that he wouldn't even need to recuse himself from the then-ongoing Russia investigation—the same one he called "fatally misconceived" in his own op-ed less than a year earlier.

As the Post notes, however, when an inspector general issues a report critical of an agency or department, usually, the department or agency's leader responds by speaking out in its defense. In this context, Barr would instead be arguing that Horowitz didn't go far enough in criticizing the department—the department Barr runs. The men and women who work at the Department of Justice—many of whom are non-partisan career employees—now know that their own leader doesn't necessarily trust them to do their jobs impartially.

One oft-repeated explanation for Barr's behavior is that throughout his career in public service, he has taken an expansive view of executive power. He has served the architect of multiple cover-ups over the course of multiple administrations. Under the senior Bush, for example, Barr was instrumental in encouraging the president to pardon key lower-level figures in the Iran-Contra scandal, preventing that investigation from reaching all the way to the White House and potentially implicating Bush himself. In other words, Barr views protecting presidents as a critical part of his job responsibilities.

Unlike Mueller's investigation, though, the inspector general's work here is concerned with the FBI's conduct, not with Trump's. In this context, by disputing the inspector general's conclusions and questioning his judgment, William Barr is not defending a president against charges of overreach or other illegal conduct. He is offering a knee-jerk reaction that favors Trump's preferred political narrative—the equivalent of a blustering defense attorney reacting to a guilty verdict by lambasting the court's "bias" from the courthouse steps. This is not a principled statement of support for the Department of Justice. It is a complaint that its independent watchdog didn't do what he wanted.

And the impeachment inquiry is only making things worse. With new figures and fresh horror stories, Julia Ioffe reports on how the president is politicizing our embassies, alienating our allies, and decimating the ranks of the foreign service.

Originally Appeared on GQ