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

Kevin Johnson and Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY
·9 min read

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 president.

For the 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 recapturing 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 said, 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 found a steadfast ally in  Attorney General William Barr.
President Donald Trump found a steadfast ally in Attorney General William Barr.

Trump's unrestrained full partner? Attorney General William Barr echoes president in slamming DOJ

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.

Though 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.
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."

A 'political maelstrom': DOJ had been drawn into 'political maelstrom'; department used as 'political weapon'

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

Justice alums push back: 1,600 former Justice Department lawyers accuse Barr of using DOJ to help Trump in election

“I cannot think of another attorney general who has used the voice and powers of his office to advance the president’s chances of reelection in the way this attorney general has,” said Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general 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.”

Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general 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 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.

The delay 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 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."

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey dismisses the criticism against William Barr as "pure rubbish."
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey dismisses the criticism against William Barr as "pure rubbish."

'Riding a tiger'

On and off the campaign trail, when Trump has sought to change the subject from his management of the coronavirus 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 has spread since July to nine cities and resulted in thousands of arrests. The rushed nature of the program – timed in the months leading up to the election – opened it to criticism that it was a political prop for Trump’s reelection campaign.

The Law and Order campaign: Trump emphasizes violence in cities: Are his 'law and order' tactics working?

Barr provided backup 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.

Trump 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, accusing Biden and former President Barack Obama of election interference, "then we're going to get little satisfaction unless I win."

Trump's push has been met with silence from the attorney general, but it thrust the Justice Department deeper into the political fray.

“What the American people should never expect," says David Laufman, a career Justice official during the Obama and Trump administrations, "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.”

Barr's supporters point to the origins of the president's 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 intensified after The Washington Post reported that a related Justice investigation was closed without producing criminal charges.

Trump slams Barr: Trump lashes out after realizing inquiry into Russia probe won't be public before election

That review 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 reacted bitterly to both developments, suggesting in an interview with conservative Newsmax TV on Wednesday that Barr's job was not safe if the president won another term in November.

"I'm not happy," Trump said, though 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.
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 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."

Standing with the president

Barr's stand with the president has been most clearly articulated in a series of public speeches since he took office in February 2019.

When Trump was embroiled in an impeachment inquiry late last fall, Barr rebuked 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.

He asserted that the "harassment" contravened the intent of the Constitution's framers who meant to provide the president with sweeping authority.

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

Last month at an event hosted by Hillsdale College in Washington, he defended his intervention this year in criminal cases involving former Trump aides Roger Stone and Flynn, 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 sought to drop the prosecution of Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

At the Hillsdale appearance, the attorney general – echoing the president's aversion to statewide lockdowns as a defense against the coronavirus – 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 firestorm of criticism from civil rights advocates.

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

Kinkopf testified at Barr's Senate confirmation hearing almost a year before, warning 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 testimony in January 2019.

"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 anyone that Barr was an advocate for expansive presidential authority. Though it would be wrong, Turley said, to suggest that Barr shaped his views 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."

Though it is not the first time the Justice Department has cast a shadow during an election, Mukasey said he had not seen the department and an attorney general featured with 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."

(Sessions, who before his dismissal endured a monthslong public shaming campaign led by Trump for his recusal from the Russia investigation, declined requests for comment on whether he quibbled with Mukasey's assessment.)

Mary McCord, who led Justice's National Security Division, was among those who were optimistic when Barr was nominated after 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.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: William Barr's politics-charged tenure puts DOJ on ballot with Trump