Barr leaves behind conflicting legacy at DOJ
Attorney General William Barr is departing the Trump administration with a mixed legacy.
President Trump and his allies praise the attorney general for overseeing big policy changes during his tenure, while critics say he politicized the Department of Justice (DOJ) and undermined the rule of law.
The federal government resumed carrying out executions, and the Justice Department surged personnel and funding to cities to blunt surges in crime. It addressed a series of concerns over the use of wiretaps during counterintelligence investigations, and federal authorities made high-profile arrests in drug cases.
But Barr’s tenure was largely marked by high-profile instances where critics said he inappropriately intervened in cases and acted more as the president’s personal lawyer than the nation’s top law enforcement official, and it is likely these controversies will be the focus of history books.
Barr had already served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush, making him the rare individual to serve in the role under two different presidents. His decision to return to the job under Trump has generally bolstered his standing among Republicans, but Barr has drawn the ire of career officials.
Barr was standing by the president’s side for some of the most controversial and defining moments of Trump’s term, often putting himself at the center of criticism from watchdogs and Democrats who already felt he had blurred the line between the White House and the DOJ.
Democrats argued Barr misrepresented the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report with a four-page letter summarizing its findings that angered members of the investigative team, who felt it downplayed their findings on obstruction. The handling of the report shadowed the rest of his tenure.
In another historic moment, Barr reportedly signed off on authorities clearing peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park earlier this year with chemicals that acted like tear gas. He then walked alongside Trump and stood for photos while the president held up a bible in front of St. John’s Church.
“The expectations were high, and I think the general feeling among Department of Justice veterans is enormous disappointment,” said Stephen Saltzburg, who worked under Barr during his first stint as attorney general and now teaches at George Washington University.
“There’s a feeling amongst most of the people I talk to that he politicized the department, that he came across as an attorney general whose job was to represent the president rather than the United States,” Saltzburg continued. “And that’s not the way we viewed him before, and that’s not the role I think many of us believe the attorney general should play.”
Barr has received praise for some programs and reforms that have improved the safety of the country, and his allies argue that he came into the role at a perilous time where the department was under constant attack from all sides under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and its reputation had been badly damaged over its handling of the Russia investigation.
“Barr came to the Justice Department the second time with a mission to stabilize the department and protect it from outside interference, from either the legislative or executive branches,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who testified at Barr’s confirmation hearing.
“And he succeeded in doing that,” added Turley, an opinion contributor at The Hill. “Indeed, his early departure was likely the result of his decisions on the question of the election fraud investigation and Hunter Biden investigation.”
Barr sometimes showed independence from Trump.
He said the president does not influence his decisions as attorney general, and he encouraged the president to stop tweeting on active cases like the one against Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone because it makes his job “impossible.”
Barr ultimately resigned days after saying there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, a clear break with Trump.
Trump also was reportedly furious when he learned Barr was aware of an investigation into Hunter Biden for months before it became public knowledge.
On Monday, Barr doubled down that he did not believe the Biden matter or allegations of election fraud warranted special counsels.
“He wants to muddy the water on his being ardently pro-Trump,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser, who added Barr was also likely ready to be done once it was clear Trump wouldn’t get a second term.
Barr showed no sign of ill feelings toward Trump in his resignation letter.
“I am proud to have played a role in the many successes and unprecedented achievements you have delivered for the American people. Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless implacable resistance,” Barr wrote. “Few could have weathered these attacks, much less forged ahead with a positive program for the country.”
Barr’s support for Trump trickled down, such as when DOJ became involved in a case in which E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist, filed a defamation lawsuit after Trump claimed she was lying and seeking money for coming forward with allegations that Trump sexually assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman store in the mid-1990s.
Barr defended the decision, stating that the DOJ gets involved when a government official is sued in civil court. The agency, which generally maintains some independence from the executive branch, argued that since Trump was president when he claimed Carroll was lying, he was protected because he was acting as a government employee.
Barr’s handling of the case against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, also led to criticism. Barr sought to dismiss the case against Flynn, even after he entered a plea deal with the government after admitting in 2017 to lying to federal agents about contacts he had with a Russian diplomat before Trump took office. At the time, Trump, who has since pardoned Flynn, praised Barr as “a man of unbelievable credibility and courage.”
Barr was a favorite among Republican lawmakers for much of his tenure. They viewed him as a law and order figure with views on executive power that aligned with their own. Barr’s desire to look into the origins of the Russia investigation appealed to Republicans who viewed it as a dubious attack on Trump, and his order to bring back the death penalty also pleased conservatives with strong views on law and order.
Earlier this year, Barr launched Operation LeGend, which was named after a four-year-old boy, LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in his Kansas City home in late June. The program, which was designed to help local police combat violent crime with the help of federal authorities, expanded this year from Kansas City, Mo., to Chicago, Albuquerque, N.M., and other U.S. cities.
And after a federal DOJ watchdog uncovered various omissions and errors in the use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray worked to implement a series of restrictions to limit how the department would conduct surveillance on elected officials and campaigns.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) hailed Barr as a “patriot” upon news of his departure, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Barr did “an outstanding job as attorney general.”
“I think with the passage of time I think the true story of Bill Barr’s tenure at justice will become better known, and I think history will show he played a key stabilizing element in the administration at a moment of great crisis,” Turley said.
When faced with criticism, Barr has insisted he has been a straight shooter just carrying out the law. But morale at the DOJ sank under his leadership as he went after career prosecutors or undercut their decisions on high-profile cases, prompting rebukes from current and former members of the department.
More than 2,000 DOJ alumni signed onto a letter in February calling for Barr to resign. Philip Halpern, who worked for the DOJ for three decades, penned an op-ed in October in which he announced his resignation and lamented that Barr showed “scorn for honest apolitical prosecutors.”
Those who know Barr believe he is unfazed by how he will be remembered. They say he is an anomaly in modern Washington who has little regard for how he is perceived and doesn’t bother to spin his statements.
Indeed, Barr himself has shown little regard for criticism of his tenure.
“Everyone dies,” Barr told CBS last year when asked about how his reputation may have suffered from working under Trump. “I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that, you know, immortality comes by having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”