‘Riding a tiger’: William Barr’s politically charged tenure puts DOJ on ballot with Trump

The fraught tenure of Jeff Sessions had been put out of its misery. And the awkward stand-in appointment of Matthew Whitaker had run its course.

It was the first day of William Barr’s second stint as attorney general of the United States, and there was a craving for a semblance of normalcy inside a Justice Department under constant siege by the sitting president.

For first time in months, there was an upbeat buzz in the long-somber hallways and talk of how the new attorney general’s deep ties to Justice uniquely suited him for the challenge of re-capturing order from months of tumult.

It didn’t last long.

In a matter a weeks, Barr began charting a course that threatened to deepen the upheaval within the sprawling department. Most alarming, analysts say, is the attorney general’s unwavering advocacy for President Donald Trump, his support for the unbound authority of the chief executive and its potential to deeply undermine the Justice Department’s long-guarded institutional independence.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr in a 2019 photo.

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From his steadfast defense of Trump in the face of damning findings outlined in the Russia investigation, to repeated interventions in the prosecutions of the president’s allies, Barr has drawn the Justice Department to the white-hot middle of the partisan political cauldron.

While the attorney general’s supporters laud him as a warrior of unrivaled power in Trump’s cabinet, Democrats and some disenchanted Republicans have made Barr’s tenure yet another pointed referendum on Trump’s presidency.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump are on opposite sides of the vote-by-mail issue.

On the campaign trail, the Democratic ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris has waged a double-barreled assault on the president and the attorney general, asserting that the Barr Justice Department “has turned into the president’s private law firm.”

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 “The most damaging thing that has happened so far, is the politicization of the Justice Department,” Biden told an audience in North Carolina last month.

Biden’s scathing critique has been joined by hundreds of Justice alums who have served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, some of whom have called for Barr to step down.

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“I cannot think of another attorney general who has used the voice and powers of his office to advance the president’s chances of re-election in the way this attorney general has,” says Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general who served in the George H.W. Bush administration. “Almost everything we see Barr doing appears to be directly calibrated and conceived as a way of managing the president’s electoral prospects.”

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served in the George W. Bush administration, calls the denunciations “pure rubbish.”

Mukasey said Barr’s tenure has been complicated by a president whose Twitter account has taken constant aim at the department’s operations, making the attorney general’s job “enormously difficult.”

Citing Barr’s recent disclosures to lawmakers that a long-awaited review of the Russia investigation – commissioned by Barr – would not be completed before Election Day, Mukasey said the attorney general has taken stands that are not in lock-step with Trump.

Indeed, the delay has exposed a rare break between the attorney general and an increasingly displeased president, who had banked on the report to implicate Biden and other Obama administration officials in wrongdoing just before next month’s election.

“When (Barr’s) actions are consistent with what the president wants, they say he’s doing the president’s bidding,” Mukasey said. “When it isn’t (consistent with the president), nobody talks about it.”

Michael Mukasey, former Attorney General of the United States, speaks during the 2016 Republican National Convention.

‘Riding a tiger’

On and off the campaign trail, when Trump has sought to change the subject from his management of a deadly pandemic, Barr and the Justice Department have never been far from the president’s mind.

The attorney general was at the center of the president’s “law-and-order” campaign when the White House announced the launch of Operation Legend, an anti-violence effort that since July has spread to nine cities across the country. While the crackdown has been credited with thousands of arrests, the rushed nature of the program – timed in the months leading up to the election – has opened it to criticism that it was a political prop for Trump’s reelection campaign.

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Barr also has provided back-up to Trump’s claims that the mail-in ballot system, set for a crucial test in the looming presidential election, is vulnerable to massive voter fraud. 

But Trump dramatically ramped up the political pressure this month, when he publicly called on his attorney general to use the power of his office against the president’s political rivals.

“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country,” Trump told Fox Business News, referring to unfounded election interference claims against Biden and former President Barack Obama, “then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win.”

Trump’s jarring demand has so far been met with silence from the attorney general, but it has thrust the Justice Department deeper into the political fray. 

“What the American people should never expect,” says David Laufman, a former Justice official in the Obama administration, “is to see the weaponization of the criminal justice system to serve as an instrument of a president’s personal and political whims or grievances.”

Yet Barr’s supporters point to the origins of the president’s recent pressure campaign as an example of the attorney general’s independence. Trump’s comments came after the attorney general privately indicated that the Russia review, headed by Connecticut federal prosecutor John Durham, would not be released before the election. The tension has intensified in recent days after it was revealed first by the Washington Post that a related Justice investigation has been closed without producing criminal charges.

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That review had examined whether Obama administration officials improperly identified or “unmasked” former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn from intelligence materials documenting Flynn’s pre-inaugural contacts with a Russian ambassador.

Trump has reacted bitterly to both developments, suggesting in a Wednesday interview with conservative Newsmax TV that Barr’s job was not safe if the president won another term in November.

“I’m not happy,” Trump said, adding that it was “too early” to say whether he would retain the attorney general in a second term.

John Durham is looking into the origins of the FBI's investigation into Russian election interference.

“The fact that nothing is being done with the Durham investigation before the election shows that the attorney general is standing on principle despite the comments of the president,” Mukasey said.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has known Barr for at least three decades, said that his friend has not only been tasked as the country’s chief law enforcement officer but also with managing a difficult boss.

“Barr has been riding a tiger throughout his tenure at the Justice Department,” Turley said. “But he is not someone who flinches; he does not define himself by how others perceive him.”

George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley testifies before the US House Judiciary Committee hearing on Trump's impeachment on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, Dec. 4, 2019.

Standing with the president

For much of his tenure, Barr’s stand with the president has been most clearly articulated in a series of public speeches since taking office in February 2019.

With Trump embroiled in an impeachment inquiry late last fall, Barr responded with a stinging rebuke of the president’s political opponents during an appearance before the conservative Federalist Society. The attorney general claimed that Democrats were pursuing a “scorched earth, no-holds-barred resistance” meant to “sabotage” Trump’s presidency.

Attorney General William Barr on Sept. 9, 2020, in Chicago.

He went on to assert that the “harassment” contravened the intent of the Constitution’s framers who, he said, meant to provide the president with with sweeping authority.

“The pursuit of scores of investigations and an avalanche of subpoenas is meant to incapacitate” the administration, Barr said in the speech, remarkable for its bitingly partisan tone. “I am convinced that the deck has been stacked against the executive.”

Barr offered up another stunner last month during a speech at D.C.’s Hillsdale College when he defended his intervention earlier this year in criminal cases involving former Trump aides Roger Stone and Flynn, while claiming that career prosecutors can “sometimes become headhunters.”

‘Criminalization of politics’: AG Barr says prosecutors become ‘headhunters’

Barr overruled line prosecutors by recommending a lighter sentence for Stone; he has also sought to drop the prosecution of Flynn, who had been awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

At the same Hillsdale appearance, the attorney general – echoing the president’s aversion to statewide lock-downs as a defense against the deadly cornonavirus –compared the restrictions to slavery.

“Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” he said, touching off a separate firestorm of criticism from civil rights advocates.

Neil Kinkopf, a Georgia State University law professor, was in the audience during the attorney general’s November Federalist Society appearance and recalled thinking that Barr could have been talking directly to him.

Kinkopf testified at Barr’s Senate confirmation hearing almost a year before, and offered an ominous warning about the then-nominee. He asserted that Barr had long advocated presidential power of “breathtaking scope, subject to negligible limits.”

“This is not the presidency our founders contemplated,” Kinkopf said then. “This is not the presidency our Constitution meant to embody.”

Kinkopf’s view has darkened since his January 2019 testimony.

“It’s even worse than I thought it was going to be,” the professor said.

Turley, who testified at the same hearing in support of the nominee, said it shouldn’t have been a surprise to any one that Barr had been an advocate for expansive presidential authority. Though it would be wrong, Turley said, to suggest that Barr shaped his views just to suit the whims of a president.

“Those who know him don’t ascribe to these corruptible purposes,” Turley said. “In a city that rotates on spin, he is the only stationary object.”

While it is not the first time that the Justice Department has cast a shadow during an election, Mukasey said he had not seen the department and an attorney general be featured with the quite the same intensity. 

“I don’t know of any (attorney general) who has faced this kind of pressure,” Mukasey said. “He has spoken out about matters that he feels are important, and he explains the reasons why.”

(Few would blame Sessions, who prior to his dismissal endured a months-long public shaming campaign led by Trump for his recusal from the Russia investigation, if he quibbled with Mukasey’s assessment. He declined requests for comment.)   

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord, right, accompanied by U.S. Attorney for the Northern District Brian Stretch, speak during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington about the security breach at Yahoo.

Mary McCord, who led Justice’s National Security Division, was among those who was optimistic when Barr was nominated following Sessions’ stormy tenure and expected he would act as an institutionalist given his history as former attorney general.

“I feel foolish now,” McCord said. “At the time, even though I knew that Barr had an expansive view of executive authority, I thought he would have more respect for the institution … I feel like I was really, really wrong to have that expectation.”

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