At his confirmation hearing nearly two years ago, Attorney General William Barr boasted that there was an advantage to putting him in charge of the Justice Department — he could afford not to care about the consequences of his decisions.
Mostly retired and 68 years old at the time, Barr’s pitch to senators in January 2019 was, “I can be truly independent.”
As Barr’s second attorney general stint comes to an end today, the consequences are clear for the Justice Department when its leader lives by the credo that he doesn’t care about how his actions are perceived.
From interventions in cases that mattered to President Donald Trump to his rejection of Trump’s vote fraud claims, Barr was a polarizing figure during his tenure: He meddled in criminal prosecutions by career prosecutors of Trump allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, signed off on unusual maneuvers by the department in lawsuits against Trump political foes including John Bolton, gave regular conservative media interviews encouraging “deep state” suspicion about the 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and set the tone to undo Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
And in the end, even the Trumpist right wing — which Barr seemed to cultivate with comments frequently aligned with sentiments on the President’s Twitter feed — turned on him.
First, ahead of the November election, he refuted Trump’s false claim that mail-in voting was susceptible to fraud. Then, after the election, he undercut Trump’s claim of widespread fraud, declaring that the Justice Department had found no such thing.
Barr also resisted demands that the Justice Department disclose an ongoing investigation into Hunter Biden, son of President-elect Joe Biden, a move that Trump and his allies believe made a difference in the election.
“He basically martyred himself. The right hates him because they think he cost the President the election,” one Justice Department ally says. “The left hates him because they think he politicized the department.”
Some allies view Barr as doing the best he could under near impossible circumstances. Some acknowledge that he often conducted himself in ways that made his job even more challenging.
One of Barr’s closest friends, George Terwilliger, who served as deputy attorney general in Barr’s first tenure as attorney general, says: “Bill knew what he was getting in for and I think he navigated it as well as he could.”
Some critics see little redemption in the fact Barr ultimately resisted some of Trump’s most extreme demands. The damage, they believe, was already done, and by the time he exited, he had lost the trust of prosecutors and many in the wider legal community nationwide.
“Barr won’t go down as the worst attorney general in history, but that’s only because of John Mitchell, who is the worst attorney general in history,” says Phillip Halpern, who served as assistant US attorney in San Diego and left the department after 36 years this fall.
Mitchell, who served as attorney general under President Richard Nixon, went to prison for his role in the coverup of the Watergate break-in.
Barr’s efforts to protect Trump damaged the norms in place since the Watergate era, Halpern says.
“When you are a federal prosecutor, the first thing you tell a jury is that it is your privilege to represent the people of the United States — not the President — the people,” he says. “That’s the best part of the deal. It’s the thing that makes the job worth doing. Bill Barr broke that deal.”
Auditioning for Trump
Barr signaled his support of Trump — who had long sought a consigliere-like attorney to protect him — even before he became attorney general. In June 2018, near the height of the Mueller investigation, Barr, then a private citizen, sent an unsolicited memo to Justice Department leadership. In it, he argued that the President couldn’t obstruct a federal investigation he theoretically directs, and thus Trump should be spared from any findings of abuse of his office or subpoenas for testimony by Mueller.
A month after Barr was confirmed as attorney general in February 2019, he delivered, offering the public a misleading summary of the Mueller’s final report that downplayed the ways Trump and his campaign relished Russian interference and how the President tried to obstruct the Russia investigation.
The nuance between what Barr said and what Mueller wrote — which wasn’t publicly unveiled for another month — was enough for Trump to claim no collusion and no obstruction, words Barr repeated.
Barr’s handling of the Mueller report rollout, prompted federal Judge Reggie Walton to sharply criticize Barr for the misdirection, accusing the attorney general of a “lack of candor” with the public and Congress in a court opinion.
After Mueller, Barr brought in US Attorney John Durham to investigate the FBI and intelligence community for their early work on the Russia investigation and reversed decisions by career officials in prosecuting cases that Mueller had handed off. Trump then used the moves in his argument to discredit Mueller’s most damning findings.
After a trial team in Washington, DC, secured the conviction of Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone, Barr overrode their sentencing submission to the judge, saying they should have been more lenient. His move followed Trump tweeting about unfairness toward Stone.
The four attorneys working with the DC US Attorney’s Office quit the Stone case in response to Barr’s intervention.
A few months later, in May of this year, Barr stepped into another Mueller case, the guilty plea from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and criticized the career prosecutors for the decisions they had made.
Career Justice Department lawyers and some political appointees were taken aback that Barr’s legal filings in the Flynn case suggested it was OK to lie to the FBI if the lie is deemed “not material,” a theory defense lawyers have since used in court against the Justice Department.
Saving the presidency
Barr’s greatest gift to Trump possibly may have been the Department’s response to the seminal episode of Trump’s presidency, the July 2019 call in which Trump pressured Ukraine for political help — in a way that may have saved Trump’s presidency.
In response to criminal referrals, Barr delivered a legal opinion from Justice Department prosecutors that cleared the President of wrongdoing in his demand for Ukraine’s help to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for aid. The call led to Trump’s impeachment by the US House.
Barr limited what was publicly known of Justice’s review to the narrow issue of whether the President broke campaign finance laws. Some public corruption prosecutors also believed Trump may have violated federal bribery law, according to two people briefed on the matter. Trump lauded Barr for his handling of the matter.
Trump’s ‘personal law firm’
Barr’s arrival at the Justice Department had come as a relief to career lawyers and employees after two years of humiliating attacks by the President against Jeff Sessions, his first attorney general.
But he quickly ran into headwinds from DOJ prosecutors and employees who complained Barr’s Justice Department had become too close to the president.
“They really have turned the Department into the President’s personal law firm,” one Justice department attorney who left in 2018 said.
It’s “done generational damage to the rule of law and reputational damage to the Justice Department and the FBI,” the attorney added.
By encouraging the investigation of the Russia investigators and leniency for Stone and Flynn, Barr was co-opting the idea that the swamp Trump railed against in his 2016 campaign wasn’t just politicians, but that the swamp included civil servants intended to serve administrations of both parties.
Barr did little to build relationships with the far-flung US attorney offices around the country and other major components of the Justice Department that do much of the agency’s day-to-day work, several department officials who served under him said. Of more than a dozen people who worked under Barr who spoke to CNN, the most common criticism of his leadership was his lack of communication with officials outside of his inner circle.
“If I were to advise him, I’d have told him if you stay in Washington, you’ll get swallowed up by the politics,” says one US attorney who admires Barr. “It is really bad optics. The more time you spend outside of Washington, the better.”
Three unusual lawsuits
Three lawsuits this year were some of the clearest examples of the Justice Department taking unusual steps to appease the President.
In one, the Justice Department tried to swap itself in for Trump as a private defendant in the lawsuit brought by columnist E. Jean Carroll after the case had already been litigated for nearly a year. Carroll alleges Trump defamed her when he denied her allegations that Trump raped her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. DOJ’s intervention would have effectively ended the case, but a judge rejected the Department’s effort. The Justice Department is now appealing.
In another case, the Justice Department sued former Melania Trump aide Stephanie Winston Wolkoff for violation of a nondisclosure agreement.
The lawsuit did not allege Wolkoff revealed national security or privileged information, rather it was over private conversations she had with the first lady.
Barr had earlier signed off on the White House’s request to sue to stop the publication of former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, an extraordinary move days before its release.
In line with his hands-off approach outside of his political circle, Barr sent Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to discuss with department attorneys how they must file the lawsuit against Bolton, according to a person familiar with the handling of the case. The lawyers advised that an attempt to stop Bolton’s book publication was ill-fated. Their concerns were ignored and Barr signed off on the lawsuit, the person said.
A dispute over whether the government can claim Bolton’s proceeds from the book is ongoing.
Barr views himself as a savvy political operator. And people who worked with him in both the Trump administration and under George H.W. Bush describe an executive who often thinks two steps ahead, becoming impatient with people around him who he believes aren’t as smart as him or as briefed on a matter.
This is why Barr’s botched handling of the ouster of Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, a Trump appointee who was overseeing the politically sensitive investigation of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, came as a surprise in June this year to people inside and outside the department. It led to a dramatic public standoff that ended when Barr dropped appointing his own pick for the job.
Tensions between main justice and prosecutors in Berman’s fiercely independent office exacerbated when Barr took over in early 2019.
Barr quizzed Berman and wanted more frequent updates on cases, which Berman viewed as micromanaging, according to people familiar with the matter.
An early source of tension was a move that Manhattan prosecutors perceived as Barr trying to use internal legal opinions to influence and steer certain investigative decisions, one person said.
One instance involved the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney who had already pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for facilitating hush-money payments to two women who alleged affairs with Trump.
Even after Cohen was sentenced, Barr ordered the Office of Legal Counsel to draw up guidance suggesting that the conduct underlying Cohen’s prosecution might have been better handled as a civil matter. The move was perceived, one person familiar with the matter said, as Barr’s attempt to send a message of his thinking on campaign finance cases by using the Office of Legal Counsel as a lever to implement his policies.
By February, Berman’s team briefed the attorney general about a new investigation into Ukrainian associates of Giuliani, according to people briefed on the matter.
The briefing wasn’t explicit about prosecutors’ interest in Giuliani, according to people briefed on the matter, but it raised the possibility that investigators may have to gain access to Giuliani’s communications as an incidental part of the probe.
Months later, in mid-October 2019, New York prosecutors charged the two associates working with Giuliani in Ukraine to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden with campaign finance charges.
The charges were announced shortly after a whistle blower alleged that during a call with Ukraine’s president, Trump withheld aid and sought an investigation into Biden.
What Berman didn’t know at the time was that Barr was days away from trying to oust him, according to people briefed on the discussions. The arrests of the Giuliani associates suddenly made that impossible, and Berman survived another eight months on the job.
The New York investigation into Giuliani soon broadened to include his business dealings, with prosecutors questioning witnesses about Giuliani.
Summer of unrest
The nationwide street protests calling for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd in May coincided with an uprising of sorts inside the Justice Department.
Barr took office vowing to focus on violent crime, using rhetoric similar to that used in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was last attorney general and when US cities were markedly more violent.
Barr embraced the Trump White House’s response to riots, accusing leftists and Antifascist activists of causing mayhem on the streets.
He ordered Justice Department lawyers and federal agents to lead a response, including deploying federal riot squads to the streets and pressing prosecutors to bring rarely used federal charges against protesters for crimes such as throwing a helmet against an officer.
On a conference call this summer with US attorneys, he even raised the prospect that prosecutors should consider bringing sedition charges against protesters, comments that quickly were leaked to the media.
Barr’s enthusiasm for his role as a domestic general for Trump garnered him a starring role when he helped orchestrate a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters near Lafayette Square, outside the White House, to clear the way for Trump to stage a photo op.
On camera, Barr surveyed the scene from the White House grounds before the crackdown, an image that reverberated among Justice Department employees around the country. He then walked across the square with the President, who held a Bible in front of a historic church and took a group picture.
In the days after, US attorneys held meetings with employees to try to reassure them that the department would not be politicized, according to current and former Justice officials.
In one US attorney’s office, a longtime career justice official told colleagues that after years of spending time trying to recruit people to work at the department, for the first time she felt ashamed to work for the Justice Department, according to an official present.
Barr fights back
By fall of this year, Barr knew he had lost the confidence of much of the Justice Department’s rank and file.
One former Trump-political appointee who left the department called the atmosphere “like being under an occupation force.”
Barr responded to the sniping by attacking his own troops.
In September, Barr delivered a speech to celebrate Constitution Day. He spent weeks working on drafts, a process he enjoys because, one former aide says, it allows him to geek out on deeply held academic theories about the intent of the Founders.
The focus of the speech was the importance of political leaders in the US system, and the role they play to make decisions, sometimes over the objections of career employees. It’s a favorite theme for Barr who has drilled this idea in meetings inside the department.
But Barr smiled at his audience as he set off on what he knew would be an incendiary speech, taking aim at his critics inside the department.
“Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency,” he said in the speech, widely perceived by Justice Department alumni and current political appointees as insulting to the department.
“You got the sense that at least Attorney General Sessions was proud of the work force he was leading,” said Kristin Hucek, a former trial attorney in the civil rights division who left the Department in late 2018.
Barr’s last days
He praised the President and chastised critics in his resignation letter. Traditionally, attorneys general send a message to employees announcing their plans to leave. Instead, Justice Department employees learned the news from the President’s Twitter feed and the media.
Barr still had engineered a graceful exit afforded few of Trump’s cabinet members.
In a final email to employees as he prepared to leave the building Wednesday, Barr spoke of his pride at leading the department. “I leave this office with deep respect for you,” he said, adding, “and I will always be grateful for your devoted service to the nation we love.”