Bill Barr didn’t want to work for President Donald Trump.
At age 68 and semi-retired for a decade, the attorney general resisted three efforts over two years to recruit him into Trump’s fold. When approached in late 2018 for his current job, Barr recommended other candidates instead. Anybody but him. Only when the White House came back yet again did he relent.
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Soon after Trump finally landed him, it didn’t seem to be a love affair in the making. At Barr’s Senate confirmation hearings in January, Barr talked at length about a decades-long friendship with special counsel Robert Mueller, describing his investigation as “vitally important” and assuring lawmakers that ”on my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work.”
“Enjoy your life,” Trump told Barr at a White House press conference shortly thereafter.
Now that Barr has provided him with political cover from Mueller’s report, Trump is lavishing him with praise. Days after Barr released a four-page summary of the report’s conclusions that Mueller himself found problematic, Trump told his friend and Fox News host Sean Hannity that Barr was a “great gentleman” and a “great man.” In a tweet on Monday, Trump gloated that while Barr is “highly respected,” Democrats now pretend not to remember their onetime hero Bob Mueller.
Other Republicans are just as exuberant about Barr, who they believe embodies the ruthless competence of previous Republican administrations but that has often been sorely lacking in the current one. After his combative press conference moments before the release of the Mueller report, one GOP operative wished aloud that Trump would drop Vice President Mike Pence from the ticket in 2020 and add Barr instead. Other prominent Republicans speak of him in almost adulatory terms. “Barr is the closest thing we have to Cheney,” said Chuck Cooper, a conservative litigator and Barr ally who, like the attorney general, led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. “He’s a man. He has a very strong sense of purpose and confidence.”
To Democrats, Barr is merely shilling for Trump, putting politics ahead of the law — “waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump,” as House Judiciary Chairman Jerold Nadler put it. To them, he is an expression of the corruption of the Republican party under Trump, one among many conservatives who may have had second thoughts about the president but now follow in lockstep. That’s a theme they will press in two Congressional hearings this week, beginning with a Wednesday session before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But people who know Barr and have tracked his career for years say the story is more complicated. Trump and Barr barely have a personal relationship, according to White House aides.Barr may have donated $2,700 to Trump in the 2016 general election, but only after he threw $55,000 to Jeb Bush in the primaries. They say that it’s not Donald Trump whom Barr is fighting for, but a vision of the presidency.
Advocates for the “unitary executive”
Barr’s first interaction with the Trump White House came in the spring of 2017 when he met with Pence to talk about representing him in the Mueller probe. He waved off the offer, instead recommending a handful of friends to do the job. About a year later, when the president’s children were unhappy with Trump’s legal representation, Barr got another phone call — and turned down another offer, this one to join the president’s personal legal team.
In late 2018, when the White House was on the hunt for a new attorney general, Barr might as well have been on speed dial. He is a longtime friend of White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who worked for him at the Department of Justice in the 1990s and who pressed him to take the job. Again, Barr begged off, urging the White House to consider his friend J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge — or the former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl — or his Kirkland and Ellis partner Mark Filip.
Ultimately, his friends managed to talk him into it. “We had discussions over a period of time and I encouraged him to take it,” said George Terwilliger, a conservative attorney and longtime friend of Barr’s.
Barr’s social and professional circle was critical in drawing him into Trump’s orbit. Barr pals, including Terwilliger, Cooper, Luttig, and the former Virginia attorney general Richard Cullen are part of a group of elite conservative litigators who were once wunderkinds in the the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. They grew up together and have fought countless political battles alongside each other.
The Trump era has been no different. Cullen represents Pence in the Russia probe. Cooper represents former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And Luttig was the runner-up for the attorney general post when Trump tapped Barr in December, according to multiple sources.
They are united by a firm belief in a theory of robust presidential power dusted off by Reagan attorney general Edwin Meese. Known among legal scholars as the theory of the “unitary executive,” they argue that the Constitution grants presidents broad control of the executive branch, including—to take a salient Trump-era example—the power to fire an FBI director for any reason at all.
Barr made his first imprint in this battle as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the George H.W. Bush administration, when he authored a controversial memo giving the FBI the right to seize fugitives abroad without the consent of the foreign government in question. As deputy attorney general, he told George H.W. Bush he had the right to go to with Iraq without the authorization of Congress.
Conservative heroes from Robert Bork to the late Justice Antonin Scalia have been advocates of this theory. Bork carried out Richard Nixon’s directive, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox because he determined the president had the right to do so. Scalia, in a 1988 dissenting opinion, argued that the president had the power to fire any executive branch official, including an independent counsel.
“A lot of the Federalist Society heroes are people who participated in or were advocates for the unitary executive,” said John Yoo, himself a proponent of the theory, which became a flashpoint in the George W. Bush administration after Yoo penned memos advising Bush that the Constitution grants the president virtually unlimited authority to use force abroad and justifying the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.
Enter Bill Barr. Before he agreed to take the attorney general job, he drew on the unitary executive theory in the 18-page memo he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last June — a document his critics say amounted to a veiled application for his current job. In that memo, Barr argued that obstruction of justice is limited to things like witness tampering and destroying evidence and that the president has “complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding.” The implication: Trump was acting on firm constitutional ground when he fired FBI director James Comey, regardless of his motivation, and that doing so was not an effort to obstruct justice. Neither were Trump’s subsequent, but thwarted, moves to fire Mueller himself.
Described by his friends as supremely confident in his views, Barr said at his confirmation hearing that he had circulated the memo widely “so that other lawyers would have the benefit of my views.”
“This captures Bill Barr perfectly,” said Luttig. “He has stayed active in Washington his entire life, he knows everyone and everyone knows him, he reaches out regularly to tell people what he is thinking about the issues of the day — and what he thinks of what they’re doing and yes, what they need to be doing differently! And they love it.”
A lifelong conservative raised by Catholic educators — his father was a professor of English literature at Columbia University, his future alma mater — Barr, was 10 at the time of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. But he has told friends he resisted Camelot’s allure. “He claims the nuns washed his mouth out with soap,” Cullen said.
Barr’s critics argue not only that he has a fringe interpretation of the law, but that far from even-handedly applying it, he’s gone out of his way to protect the president. “You can be the President’s defense attorney or America’s Attorney General, but you can’t be both,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said in mid-April, as part of a call for Barr’s resignation. Other liberal critics have argued for his impeachment.
These critics say that presidents cannot and should not oversee, interfere with, or direct investigations. “The most important function of the Department of Justice is to protect the independence of the prosecutorial function and the criminal justice system from political entanglement,” said Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Barr at the Justice Department during the George H.W. Bush administration. Vance argued in a December op-ed that Barr’s memo disqualified him from serving as attorney general.
“It’s easier for people who’ve never been in the Justice Department to take this unitary executive point of view,” Vance added. “But for anybody who’s been inside of the justice department for even five seconds you understand that one of the most important things that you do is to protect the criminal prosecutorial power from political influence.”
Parrying with the press
Barr’s decision to convene a press conference on the Mueller report before it was released to the public, and his statements during the 21-minute event turned him into a villain on the left and a subject of broad admiration on the right.
Democrats say that Barr didn’t just mischaracterize the report’s findings, using the president’s preferred word, “collusion,” rather than the more technical “criminal conspiracy” but labored to explain Trump’s illicit behavior, describing him as frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.” Barr was acting as “as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist of the President of the United States,” declared Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass).
“Excusing the president taking obstructive acts by saying that he was frustrated — every person who commits obstruction of justice is frustrated,” said Matt Miller, who served as spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder. “The person that Republicans told us would be strong enough to stand up to the president is the one person who is actually behaving the way the president has always wanted his attorney general to behave.”
Republicans saw something different unfolding. They relish Barr’s willingness and ability to thrust and parry with the press — something other Trump cabinet secretaries have gone out of their way to avoid for fear of overshadowing the president or making a misstep that might sit wrong with him and cost them their job.
During his pre-Mueller report press conference he interrupted a reporter who questioned why Mueller wasn’t present for the release of “his” report only for Barr to interject, “No, it’s not, it’s a report that he did for me as the attorney general… I’m here to discuss my response to that report and my decision, entirely discretionary, to make it public since these reports are not supposed to be made public.”
Pressed on whether it was inappropriate to come out and “spin” the report before it was made public, Barr offered a terse response: “No.”
Barr’s allies argue that Democrats are upset only over Barr’s decision not to prosecute the president. “The left is savaging Barr only because Barr is not savaging Trump,” Cooper said. A Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Targeting Bill Barr,” argued that Barr “will be hammered no matter what he decides. The good news is that the country finally appears to have an Attorney General who can take the heat.”
He will have to. Reports Tuesday evening indicating that Mueller penned a letter to Barr protesting his characterization of the report’s conclusions reignited calls for Barr’s resignation or impeachment.
But many conservatives think it will take more than that to damage Trump’s improbable defender.
“Barr step down?” said Sol Wisenberg, a former deputy on Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton, told POLITICO on Tuesday. “Are you fucking insane?”