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William Barr Emerges As The Attorney General Trump Wanted. Democrats, Not So Much

Attorney General William Barr with President Trump at the International Association of Chief of Police conference on Oct. 28. The men have a better relationship than Trump did with Jeff Sessions.
Evan Vucci

When William Barr's name surfaced as a possible replacement for Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Republicans and Democrats alike greeted the news with a measure of relief.

If Barr took over he'd replace a frequent target of the president's ire in private, on Twitter and in television interviews.

As a prominent Republican lawyer who had served as attorney general before, Barr was viewed as an establishment figure who could restore stability to a Justice Department caught in the middle of Washington's bitter political fight over the Russia investigation.

At least one constituent is still pleased: After almost nine months in the job, Barr appears to enjoy the president's confidence and approval in a way that Sessions never did.

Democrats, in contrast, have accused Barr of turning the Justice Department into a political weapon against the White House's opponents.

Twilight of the Sessions era

One of Trump's frequent complaints against Sessions was that he didn't open an investigation into what the president alleges was wrongdoing by the FBI and Democrats during the 2016 election.

One of the president's frequent claims is that officials under President Barack Obama "spied" on his campaign.

"A lot of bad things happened on the other side—not on this side, but on the other side," Trump told Fox News last year. "Somebody should look into it because what they did is really fraudulent and somebody should be looking into that. And by somebody, I'm talking about you know who."

"You know who" was Sessions. But he never did — and after a rocky 21 months at the helm, Sessions stepped down under pressure in November 2018.

Barr, the pick to replace him, had served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush from 1990 to 1991.

Republicans were delighted — they touted Barr's legal pedigree and experience.

Even Democrats acknowledged that Barr was qualified for the job, but they had concerns about how he would handle special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, which at the time was still in full swing.

The Democrats' concerns stemmed, at least in part, from a memo Barr had written before his nomination in which he criticized aspects of Mueller's work. At his confirmation hearing in January, Barr tackled questions about his independence head-on.

"President Trump has sought no assurances, promises or commitments from me of any kind, either expressed or implied," he told lawmakers. "And I have not given him any, other than that I would run the department with professionalism and integrity."

The president may not have sought any commitments from Barr, but the committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, did.

Graham asked Barr to promise to investigate the same allegations that the president has pushed—of potential wrongdoing by the FBI or DOJ during the 2016 election.

Barr agreed to look into it. A month later, he was confirmed by the Senate.

Democrats quickly sour

It did not take long for Barr's relationship with Democrats to unravel. That began with a four-page letter Barr wrote in March summarizing Mueller's final report.

The attorney general wrote that the special counsel's office had not found that the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. It also said Mueller's team did not draw a conclusion one way or the other on whether the president obstructed justice.

Barr cleared the president of any wrongdoing.

The White House rejoiced. Trump said his long-repeated theme was finally confirmed: "no collusion, no obstruction."

Democrats, on the other hand, were furious. They accused Barr of trying to etch into stone the "no collusion, no obstruction" narrative before anyone else had a chance to see Mueller's findings, which were more nuanced.

And even as the public waited for a redacted version of the Mueller report to be released, news broke that Barr was launching a review of the origins of the Russia investigation.

"As I said in my confirmation hearing, I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016," Barr told a Senate committee.

Barr also said that he believed the Trump campaign had the target of "spying." What he wanted to determine, he said, was whether that so-called spying had been "adequately predicated."

Republicans welcomed the review. For Democrats, Barr's decision seemed odd.

Aspects of the Russia investigation, they pointed out, were already being investigated by the Justice Department's independent inspector general and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee.

Democrats also jumped on Barr's use of the term "spying," which Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz called "unnecessarily inflammatory."

The FBI used confidential sources and surveillance authorities to monitor sometime members of Trump's campaign who were in contact with Russians in 2016.

The fact of the Russian interference was well established and documented extensively by Mueller's office, but Trump and his supporters also charged that "biased" conspirators within the "deep state" had abused their powers to target him.

So Barr's embrace of the term "spying" resonated with Trump allies eager to press ahead with criticism of the Justice Department and the FBI, and it also echoed Trump's earlier allegation — false — that Obama had his "wires tapped."

Barr appointed a veteran prosecutor, U.S. Attorney for Connecticut John Durham, to lead the Russia review.

Even skeptics viewed Durham as a good choice. He's an experienced prosecutor with a reputation for being tight-lipped and independent. And previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, had turned to him in the past to lead politically sensitive investigations.

Once appointed, Durham got to work, quietly operating under the radar.

Attorney General William Barr spoke alongside then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O'Callaghan, left, in April.
Patrick Semansky / AP
Attorney General William Barr spoke alongside then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O'Callaghan, left, in April.

The Ukraine affair

The attorney general, in contrast, has remained very much in the news.

Barr came up several times in President Trump's now-famous phone call on July 25 th with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In the rough transcript of the call, Trump asks Zelenskiy to launch investigations and him to get in touch about it with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani — as well as with Barr.

The Justice Department says the attorney general has not discussed Ukraine with Trump, nor has Barr been in contact with Ukraine or Giuliani.

Another witness in the Ukraine case, former Ambassador Kurt Volker, said that the U.S. Justice Department never actually asked its counterpart in Ukraine to undertake the investigation that Trump wanted.

But the U.S. Justice Department also declined to open an investigation into whether Trump's request of the Ukrainians may have violated U.S. campaign finance law.

What critics call Barr's closeness to Trump was underscored by a report in The Washington Post that said the president had asked the attorney general to convene a press conference in which he announced that Trump hadn't broken any laws in the Ukraine affair.

Trump denied the story.

"If I asked Bill Barr to have a press conference I think he'd do it," he said on Friday. "I never asked him.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summed up the view of many Democrats earlier on when she said: "I do think the attorney general has gone rogue; he has for a long time now."

Russia review marches on

Barr has taken a hands-on approach to Durham's review of the Russia investigation.

The attorney general has asked the president to make phone calls to foreign leaders to help open doors for Durham, and Barr even traveled with Durham to Rome for meetings with Italian officials.

Then late last month, news broke that the Russia review had been upgraded to a formal criminal investigation, giving Durham the ability to impanel a grand jury and subpoena witnesses.

It's unclear what prompted the change, when it took place or what alleged wrongdoing is under investigation.

But the timing of the news—after a week of damaging testimony out of the House impeachment inquiry—prompted Democrats to accuse Barr of using the Durham investigation as a political cudgel.

"This is tainted because of the motivation, which is a political one, to serve the president's political interests," Schiff told told ABC News.

Schiff did not offer any evidence to support his allegation that there had been undue influence or there was anything improper about the change in status.

Barr's supporters say the allegations against Barr are unfounded.

"This is not legal alchemy. Bill Barr can't make gold from lead," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a friend of Barr's. "So if John Durham finds no criminality, that will be a finding that Bill Barr will respect."

Turley says Democrats are doing the same thing Trump tried to do with the Mueller investigation—undermine any conclusions of the investigation before they're reached.

"This is becoming a Hamlet-like moment, where Democrats doth protest too much," he says.

He argues that Americans have questions about what transpired in 2016 that only investigations like Mueller's and Durham's can answer.

"I think the only way that this country can even hope to regain any sense of unity is with a full disclosure of the facts from the investigations on both sides," he said. "We simply cannot come together as a country if we are relying on politicians to frame the record and to reach conclusions for us."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.