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Attorney General William Barr's Unwavering Support Of Trump, Explained


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. President Trump fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after complaining that Sessions had failed to protect him from a special counsel investigation. In his replacement, current Attorney General William Barr, Trump has a fierce advocate.

In an article for The New Yorker magazine, our guest, veteran journalist David Rohde, says Barr has acted as Trump's political sword and shield, presenting a sanitized summary of special counsel Robert Mueller's findings to the public and launching his own investigation into the FBI's probe of the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia and the intelligence community's assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election. In his article, Rohde explores the roots of Barr's conservative values and his longstanding commitment to expanding the powers of the presidency.

David Rohde is a longtime investigative journalist. He's now executive editor for news at newyorker.com He's written a book, "In Deep: The FBI, The CIA, And The Truth About America's Deep State," which will be published in April. His article about William Barr appears in the January 20 edition of the magazine and is available on newyorker.com.

Well, David Rohde, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You say in this piece that William Barr is the most feared, criticized and effective member of Trump's cabinet, but it's clear from your piece that his fervent advocacy on a lot of these issues isn't new, that he has firm convictions about law and politics that date back decades. You write about an address he gave at Notre Dame last fall, which you say was a case for ideological warfare. What was his message?

DAVID ROHDE: Well, his message was - you know, there are various ones, but the key one was that he felt that organized religion in the United States was under assault. And I think, you know, there are many Americans who are religious that feel this way. He talked about sort of - there's a combination of the Hollywood elite and the mass media sort of attacking people that are of faith.

I - you know, many Americans would disagree with that and say that that point was exaggerated, but it's - it was a sort of theme, a Trumpian theme of kind of being under siege, that conservatives are under siege and under assault and a theme of - also of grievance. So it was more decorous than, you know, frankly, President Trump speaks. But he was sort of hitting the same points and pushing the same buttons.

DAVIES: It's clear that Barr's convictions are long-held. They go way back. Tell us a bit about his family life.

ROHDE: So Barr grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Both of his parents taught at Columbia at different points in their career. His mom was also an editor at Redbook, the magazine. And his father was a headmaster of Dalton, sort of an elite private school. He went to Horace Mann, which was an elite private school as well in New York.

And this was in the middle of the Vietnam era. And he was then, at that point in his life, absolutely convinced in one thing, and that is that the president of the United States should have total authority to respond to threats to the United States. And he debated - you know, I talked to some of his high school classmates - the balance of power, you know, Congress versus the president and the judiciary. And even at that point as a teenager, Bill Barr was like, the president needs the authority to act unilaterally in foreign affairs. He supported the war in Vietnam, you know, and he believed that passionately then. And to this day, he is an aggressive supporter of presidential power.

DAVIES: Right. He went to a parochial school as a kid. The family were deeply committed Catholics, right?

ROHDE: They were, and he's an observant Catholic today. And I - you know, I don't think that's a major issue. That's his personal life, and it's fine. But he was very political even in the parochial school. You know, he told a nun that he wanted to vote for Richard Nixon when he was in elementary school. And the nun replied, you know, well, I'll pray for you then.

But that, to his credit, is the kind of courage of his convictions. He's always been willing to sort of speak out, you know, stand up for what he believes in. And he's been very, very consistent throughout his life about what he's fighting for.

DAVIES: He goes to college at Columbia, which, you know, must have been at the height of the student protest movement. Did his thinking drift left at all from that experience?

ROHDE: No. From, again, what we heard is he was sort of repulsed by this according to folks who knew him at the time. When Columbia students sort of famously took over the main administration building, he saw this as sort of chaotic.

And so while, you know, everyone else of his generation or many of the people of his generation are protesting against the war, he actually did internships at the CIA. His father had served in the precursor to the CIA in World War II. And, you know, young Bill Barr, you know, graduates from Columbia, does an internship at the CIA. He goes to graduate school at Columbia as well and, you know, does Chinese studies. But his first job out of graduate school is actually at the CIA as an analyst about China.

DAVIES: So he becomes an analyst at the CIA, then goes to law school, and then finds himself at the CIA's Office of Legal Counsel. And this is when George Herbert Walker Bush was director of the CIA. What kind of issues was the CIA confronting at that time?

ROHDE: So they were, you know, watching a classic power struggle unfold between Congress and the president. This is after Watergate. But there had been a congressional investigation, a famous Senate committee called the Church Committee, that had found decades of abuses by the CIA and the FBI, where both organizations had spied on Americans. They spied on Martin Luther King. You know, the FBI sent King false letters. The CIA spied on John Lennon.

So there was an effort by Congress to enact all these laws and restrict what the CIA was doing. And there's sort of a great anecdote, where George Herbert Walker Bush, then the CIA director, is testifying before Congress. It's a congresswoman from New York - a famous one, Bella Abzug - her mail had been opened by the CIA for decades because she had represented various people accused of McCarthyism. And so there was a law that Congress wanted to enact where the CIA would apologize to every American whose letter had been opened by the agency.

Bush testified against that. At one point in the hearing, he turns around and asked Barr, this sort of young aide in his late 20s, for advice how to answer a question. Bush takes Barr's advice, you know, delivers the answer Barr recommends. And Barr is really struck by George H.W. Bush and impressed by him.

DAVIES: Right. He then moves into the government in the Reagan White House. Reagan is elected - Ronald Reagan - in 1980. He becomes a White House deputy assistant director for legal policy. And over the course of the Reagan administration, there were big issues about independent counsel investigations into government misconduct in part because of this huge scandal, the Iran-Contra scandal. You want to remind us what that was about and Barr's view of these issues?

ROHDE: Yeah, it's the mid-1980s, and it's a continuation of this same debate from the '70s about the balance of power between Congress and the president. Congress had passed a law specifically banning the Reagan administration from aiding anti-communist rebels, the Contras, in Nicaragua. And the White House began a secret effort to funnel money to those guerrilla groups in Central America. They sold weapons to Iran partly in a way to try to get some American hostages free that were being held in Lebanon. And then they used the proceeds from the arms sales to fund the Contras. That became the Iran-Contra scandal.

It was completely illegal. You know, William Casey, the CIA director ran this. He violated, again, a law passed by Congress barring this aid. There is a huge inquiry. There's, you know, a joint congressional committee that looks into it. And there's these famous scenes of Oliver North testifying. He had, you know, run this secret program that was illegal, and North defiantly said, the president and, you know, myself as his aide, we have to act unilaterally to defend the country. And it's the same, you know, argument over and over again.

DAVIES: After the Reagan administration, William Barr is actually appointed attorney general by George Herbert Walker Bush, who wins the 1988 election. And this issue of special counsel investigations into this scandal, the secret arms sales, the Iran-Contra scandal, affected a lot of people's lives. What role did Barr play? What happened?

ROHDE: So near the end of the Bush administration, there was a lot of complaints that the special counsel who'd been appointed to investigate Iran-Contra, Lawrence Walsh, was overzealous. And about a half dozen people had been convicted or were awaiting trial. And after Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, Bush personally sort of blamed the special counsel and the continuing shadow of Iran-Contra for hurting his reelection effort. And Bush then pardoned about a half dozen of these former administration officials who'd been convicted or were awaiting trial under the Iran-Contra special prosecutor.

Bill Barr very much supported that. Ignoring special counsels fit his philosophy of executive power. He felt that the creation of special prosecutors, which came out of Watergate, was a dilution and a weakening of presidential power. He felt that inspectors general, which are also these independent investigators that look for waste, fraud and abuse created by Congress, they, you know, are as well. So Barr supported these pardons. But they were very controversial. It was seen as a sort of major blow to Congress' power.

In essence, these half dozen officials could violate, you know, a law, lie to Congress and get pardoned for it. And if there's going to be a sort of balance of power, you know, it's good for administration officials to fear lying, you know, to Congress and to fear breaking laws.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is an interesting dispute here. I mean - and before he was attorney general for President Bush, he headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. You mentioned that he wrote a memo on executive and congressional power. Give us a sense of what his logic here was. I mean, doesn't the executive need some check on its actions?

ROHDE: In speeches over the years, he's talked about the executive branch is the most effective branch of the U.S. government and that when the United States has faced, you know, major threats or even existential threats, from the Civil War to the Great Depression to World War II, he feels that the executive branch is what has responded most effectively and really saved the United States. Many people disagree with that view.

But, you know, he feels that you need a decisive individual with a democratic mandate, you know, elected by the people of the United States, that can act decisively, that the legislative branch is sort of too divided and the judicial branch is too slow to kind of respond in the decisive ways that are needed to defend the country.

DAVIES: Right. That's an argument for efficacy. Is there a constitutional argument as well? And is this what the founders intended?

ROHDE: Well, this is this great debate, and we'll talk at some point about what's happening today. But many people say no. You know, Donald Ayer, who was a, you know, a deputy attorney general also in the Bush administration, you know, told me that Barr's views on presidential power are chilling and deeply disturbing. Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor - some would say, you know, left-leaning - you know, he said that if Barr's views of executive power, you know, take hold, we'll have a chief executive who is more powerful than a king.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Rohde. He is a veteran journalist and now an executive editor of thenewyorker.com. His story "William Barr, Trump's Sword And Shield" appears in the January 20 edition of the magazine, also available on newyorker.com. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with David Rohde, an executive editor of thenewyorker.com. He has a story in the January 20 edition of the magazine profiling the U.S. attorney general called "William Barr, Trump's Sword And Shield." It's also available on newyorker.com.

Bill Barr grew up Catholic. He's remained a committed Catholic all his life, a man of faith. Is there evidence that this has affected his judgments or Justice Department policies? Are his religious convictions reflected in policy moves made by the department?

ROHDE: I think it's, you know, very important that, you know, to let his faith be private. And it's hard for me to say - it's impossible for me to say, you know, whether it impacts his thinking. He does support - and the Justice Department has filed briefs - pushing for government tuition reimbursements to go to religious schools. There's - in a couple of states, those have been filed, and he supports that. In his speech at Notre Dame, he talked about religious education being a really important cure for social ills. He felt that religion was more effective at ending those social ills than government intervention.

And, you know, there's divides in the Catholic Church. You know, there are liberal Catholics who disagree with that; there are conservative Catholics who support it. And so it's hard to say. But he does back taxpayer funding of religious schools, and he's a very strong opponent of abortion rights. He supports the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

DAVIES: You also noted that when he was attorney general under George Herbert Walker Bush, that he had some strong views on the nature of crime and the criminal justice system. And there was a religious element to that, too, wasn't there?

ROHDE: Barr talks publicly about morality and the need for religion. In his speech at Notre Dame, he said that for democracy to survive, many people needed to be observant, that religion would cause people to follow a moral order and the law and act properly and uphold democracy. Many people were offended by that. They said that, you know, the Founding Fathers talked about separation and church, that you don't need to be religious to participate in democracy; you can be an atheist.

And then there was a separate statement he gave in a 1995 symposium where he spoke about violent crime, and he argued that the root cause of crime was not poverty but immorality. He said violent crime is caused not by physical factors, such as not enough food stamps and the stamp program, but ultimately by moral factors.

And again, liberals sort of find this offensive. They find it sort of preaching. And it worries them that there's this sort of message they contend that you have to be religious to sort of be a, you know, properly functioning member of society or that there's sort of a message being sent that violates the bedrock American separation of church and state that you should be free to follow any religion you wish and free to follow no religion. Barr's defenders say he's just expressing his views and liberals are overreacting to what he has said.

DAVIES: William Barr came into the Trump administration after the president fired Jeff Sessions, but before he was appointed, he sent this pretty well-publicized now 19-page legal memo to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, about the Mueller investigation. What did it say?

ROHDE: It said that the president can only be guilty of obstructing justice if he does a handful of very severe things, such as destroying evidence or clearly and openly pressuring a witness to lie. And many people feel that the message of the memo, which he submitted before he was nominated, was that he would defend Trump. And Trump was furious at Jeff Sessions because he felt he wasn't kind of reining in the Mueller investigation.

And, you know, Trump famously said, where is my Roy Cohn? I want my Roy Cohn. And that's a reference to this very famous New York lawyer who was an aide to Senator McCarthy during McCarthyism in the '60s, when many people were questioned unfairly about being communists. But it's this kind of no-holds-barred, you know, fight-for-your-client, attack-your-opponents approach to law that Roy Cohn embodied that Trump was sort of looking for. He wants an attorney general who functions as his fighter, his advocate. And, you know, as the story says he wants an attorney general that's going to be his sword and shield.

DAVIES: Right. Did Trump have much of a relationship with Barr before this? Was he - was Barr a supporter or contributor to Trump?

ROHDE: He wasn't. He actually - Barr made many donations to mainstream Republicans. Barr backed Jeb Bush in the primaries, but he quickly turned around on Trump. He - you know, Barr felt that the media was too critical of Trump, that the left sort of overreacted to Trump's win. And so there's a sense that Barr kind of goes into this job because he sees the presidency being weakened. He sees the Mueller investigation as, like, diluting presidential power, and, again, he believes it's critical for the country to have a strong president. He also believes the Justice Department is sort of being weak. And so I got the sense from people close to Barr that he's, you know, more loyal to the presidency in these beliefs he has. And I think he's a clear supporter of President Trump, but he's working for his view of what the constitutional system should be rather than, you know, solely out of personal loyalty to Donald Trump.

DAVIES: I was going to ask what you heard from people who know Barr about this memo. I mean, it's no small thing to write this 19-page memo that nobody asked for. Do people see this as - I don't know - driven by ambition, or was it his principled belief that things were going in the wrong direction?

ROHDE: So his friends said it was his principled belief that things were going in the wrong direction, and he had to, you know, step in. And he was at the end of his career, and he could do, you know, what he felt was right. And then there's others that said it was he wanted to get back in the game, that it was a clear signal to the president and the Trump administration that he would defend the president from anything Mueller was going to do.

DAVIES: All right. So Trump appoints William Barr. I think he says, he was my top choice from day one, or words to that effect. When Barr takes over the Justice Department, you write that morale was low, in part because President Trump had required the Justice Department to defend contorted legal positions - like what?

ROHDE: The Trump legal agenda is farther right than the Reagan administration or sort of any - or the George W. Bush administration has taken. One of the striking things is that the Justice Department under President Trump and under Barr - there was, you know, several automakers that made an agreement to reduce their emissions with the state of California. The Trump-Barr Justice Department immediately announced an antitrust investigation against those automakers because privately, White House officials saw this agreement as a PR stunt that was, you know, out to embarrass the administration.

And that's just one example of this extraordinary use of the Justice Department to sort of attack companies, corporations that are seen as enemies by the White House. And this is very different from a private sector that - the Reagan administration, you know, believed in unfettered capitalism. You wouldn't create an antitrust investigation to attack a company, you know? You let it do its business. And that's what's so different about the Trump era.

DAVIES: David Rohde's story about William Barr in the January 20 edition of The New Yorker and at newyorker.com. After a break, he'll talk about Barr's handling of the Mueller report and the whistleblower complaint about President Trump's phone call to the president of Ukraine. Also, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Star Trek: Picard," starring Sir Patrick Stewart. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking about President Trump's attorney general, William Barr, with veteran investigative reporter David Rohde, who's now executive editor for news at newyorker.com. Rohde says Barr is a fierce advocate for Trump. And in a new article for the magazine, he explores the roots of Barr's conservative values and his long-standing commitment to increasing presidential power.

For decades, there've been battles between presidents and congressional committees who have sought information, and presidents have resisted claiming executive privilege. And you're right that, historically, Justice Department lawyers have tried to help resolve the disputes, kind of mediate them, come to an understanding. How did the Barr Justice Department handle this issue?

ROHDE: One of the changes we heard about was that, you know, instead of trying to kind of mitigate or give some information or Congress to get a middle ground is that the Justice Department under Barr is no longer doing that. They simply are asserting executive privilege in multiple cases, saying that the president, you know, does not have to turn over information to Congress. There is an amicus brief that Barr's Justice Department has filed saying that the president's tax returns and financial documents should not go to the Manhattan district attorney who's investigating, you know, whether he engaged in tax fraud or, potentially, this illegal campaign payment to keep quiet women with allegations against the president.

On impeachment, Barr very much supports the effort by the White House to block the handing over of all documents related to the impeachment investigation and to blocking the testimony of any White House aides in the impeachment investigation. And this is just extraordinary. Impeachment is Congress' ultimate power. It's - some say it's being used too aggressively now. But to have the president United States say, none of my aides, no documents, nothing, to a theoretically coequal branch of government has never happened before in American history.

DAVIES: You know, I'm not a lawyer, but, I mean, it seems to me that for this blanket refusal to provide information to Congress to be, you know, institutionalized going forward, it would kind of have to be ratified by the courts, wouldn't it? I mean, have these issues been tested in the legal system? Or are members of Congress reluctant to go there, to establish a precedent?

ROHDE: Many of these questions have not been resolved by the courts yet. The courts tend to be slow. You know, various cases are winding their way to the Supreme Court. And in the end, you know, the Supreme Court's ruling on all these key issues could redefine the balance of power between the different branches of government. This is a historic time and a historic moment. And there's a chance, you know, with two justices appointed by Trump that are supporters of executive power, that the court could support a more powerful presidency than we've ever had in American history.

And the swing vote in all this is Chief Justice John Roberts, who Americans can, you know, watch now overseeing the Senate trial. It's really in his hands, whether, you know, there's a redefinition of, you know, balance of power between Congress and the president. Some critics of Democrats in Congress say they've rushed the impeachment, that they should have gone to courts first to try to get certain key witnesses to testify. But the Democrats say they, you know, don't have time for that. They're trying to push through the impeachment quickly.

But all of this, I just can't emphasize enough, is extraordinary. The scope of changes, the aggressiveness of Barr's legal theories and tactics, the precedents that the Trump administration is creating for future occupants of the Oval Office - it's monumental, what is unfolding today.

DAVIES: Well, a lot has happened surrounding William Barr and the Mueller investigation, including his handling of the Mueller report when it was released. And he received it and issued a statement which became the public face of the report for weeks, until a redacted version of it could be published. Remind us what happened and how Mueller reacted.

ROHDE: So the report is handed over to Barr. He's only been in office for several weeks. And Mueller had prepared summaries of the report that had been, you know, redacted of intelligence information or sensitive information. And instead of releasing that, Barr produced his own four-page summary that included, to be fair, some - the basic conclusion in the report that the Mueller investigation had not found collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But the summary did minimize the extent, the number of examples that had been found of Trump trying to obstruct the investigation. In all, there were 10 examples of possible obstruction of justice that Mueller found. So this four-page summary, it was seen, essentially, according to critics, like, backed the president's messaging that he had been exonerated.

And so for weeks, you know, that message was out there, and then the full report comes out, and there's all kinds of questionable actions by the president - some say obstruction of justice. And this is where the criticism of Barr is that he's acting as a political agent of the president. And since Watergate, attorneys general are supposed to be independent, to not be overly political. But this was an early sign of what Barr was going to be like during his tenure as attorney general.

DAVIES: You know, that is remarkable because, I think, you know, when you write about how, you know, Barr is in lockstep with his - with the president on a lot of controversial issues - like immigration policy, the citizenship question on the census - I mean, I think a lot of people would say, well, isn't that what every attorney general does for the person who appointed them?

ROHDE: So this is a big debate. And, you know, there's a sense that some attorneys general have been more political. Bobby Kennedy was seen as, you know, supportive of his brother. Ed Meese with the Reagan administration went around - you know, they were unhappy with some Supreme Court decisions, and Ed Meese gave speeches telling Americans, you don't have to see Supreme Court rulings as the law of the land, you know. You can have subsequent legal interpretations, which was an extraordinary statement.

And then the most infamous attorney general would be John Mitchell. He served as attorney general under Richard Nixon, and while serving as attorney general, he oversaw a campaign slush fund that was used to smear enemies of the president. It was an illegal activity. After being attorney general, Mitchell, you know, becomes the chairman of Nixon's campaign, and then Watergate is carried out. John Mitchell, for crimes he committed after being attorney general, is sent to prison, is tried and convicted. He's the only attorney general to have gone to prison. So there is a post-Watergate norm.

Edward Levi, a conservative from the University of Chicago, becomes attorney general after Watergate. And he sets a strict standard of independence that for people to believe that the courts are fair, that everyone gets a fair trial, that you're not prosecuted, you know, differently because of your political party, it's critical for the attorney general of the Justice Department to administer the law independently and in an apolitical way.

And, you know, there's been ups and downs and different attorneys generals have been - you know, political conservatives would say that Eric Holder protected Barack Obama. But it has reached a new level with Barr, where he's giving these sort of very political speeches where he attacks liberals and, again, sort of helps push the president's message.

DAVIES: David Rohde is a veteran journalist and the executive editor for news of newyorker.com. His story, "William Barr, Trump's Sword and Shield," appears in the January 20 edition of the magazine, also available on newyorker.com. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with David Rohde, the executive editor for news of newyorker.com. He has a story in the January 20 edition of the magazine profiling the U.S. attorney general. It's called "William Barr, Trump's Sword and Shield." It's also available on newyorker.com.

One of the things that Barr did was to support Trump's criticisms of the Mueller investigation, including Trump's assertion that his campaign was spied on. Barr said in a hearing, I think last April, that he thought spying did occur. What steps has Attorney General Barr taken to pursue these complaints?

ROHDE: So one of the president's biggest, you know, complaints and messages has been that he's a victim of a sort of deep state coup, that there was an effort by the FBI and the CIA - and it's not clear what the, you know, details are - to undermine him from day one, to leak negative stories to the press. And then he claims that this, the entire Mueller investigation, was unnecessary.

I've spoken at length with FBI officials that were part of that investigation, and they felt they had to investigate the president. He - you know, it's the middle of 2016, you know, DNC emails have been stolen. They're being released, and Trump publicly calls for the Russians to find Hillary's remaining emails. As you know, that's an unusually contentious issue. But what's been unusual about Barr is that he did - he used this term, as you said, that the FBI spied on Trump's campaign. And when there was an exhaustive investigation of this announced recently by the inspector general for the Justice Department, you know, they came to the conclusion that the basis for launching the investigation was legal and factual. There were grounds to look at what was happening in the summer of 2016. There were major mistakes in the surveillance of one former Trump campaign aide, but there was no spying on, you know, the campaign, you know, or Trump Tower or some of the allegations that the president has made.

And even when that report came out, Barr sort of quickly issued a statement saying that his own investigation of what had happened was going to continue. And he sort of questioned the inspector general's findings.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, you know, what Barr's done here is not simply to express opinions, but to use the power of his office to launch an investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe. What exactly is he doing? Who's leading it?

ROHDE: So it's this extraordinary power he has been given by President Trump where the attorney general is going to review the work of the FBI, which is fine. The FBI is under the Justice Department, under the attorney general. But he's also reviewing the work of the CIA and the intelligence community in producing the assessment that said that Russia had intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump's effort.

And what's unusual is that we've had, you know, tremendous mistakes and failures by the intelligence community. You know, the CIA missed the 9/11 attacks, you know, Iraq WMD, you know, the assumption that there were weapons there for the invasion. That proved to be wrong. And what's happened in most cases is there are congressional investigations or these independent commissions - the 9/11 Commission - which are nonpartisan and, you know, to sort of get to a, you know, a common history for what happened, and then proposed reforms.

Barr has had - he's appointed a federal prosecutor, John Durham of Connecticut, to investigate both the FBI and the CIA and how did they investigate the Trump campaign and what happened. And this is very unusual because you don't normally have a federal prosecutor looking at, you know, an intelligence assessment. And many intelligence officials I talked about said this is a piece of analysis. This was, you know, what people believed to be true and that having a criminal investigation is sort of overkill, and it could have a chilling effect where the FBI might be hesitant to look into corruption involving, you know, members of the Trump administration because there'll be, you know, an investigation of their work, or an intelligence analyst may be nervous about contradicting the president about the likelihood of North Korea, you know, agreeing to a nuclear arms deal because they could be investigated themselves for their conduct.

So Barr says it's necessary, that there are still suspicions, you know, among some Republicans about Comey and the FBI's actions. But there is a fear that, again, this is kind of a - it will silence people, that there'll be a chilling effect. If you investigate this president, you yourself will be investigated.

DAVIES: Does the Barr investigation extend to Trump's suspicion that Ukraine actually was involved in leaking the DNC emails and it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 election?

ROHDE: It's not clear. I mean, one of the unusual things about having a federal prosecutor do this is that it's all very secret. It's not - you know, they're not holding a series of congressional hearings or 9/11-style hearings to understand what happened in 2016. Instead, we don't know exactly what he's looking at. And so, you know, I don't know.

One thing I want to clarify is that in the kind of, you know, now famous transcript of President Trump's conversation with the president of Ukraine, you know, Trump famously says to the president of Ukraine, you've got to talk to my personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And you should talk to Attorney General Bill Barr. Barr's spokespeople have emphatically denied that Barr has ever spoken to the president of Ukraine or any Ukrainian officials about that. And they've also said that Barr never spoke to Giuliani.

Lev Parnas, who is a Giuliani associate that's, you know, been indicted by federal prosecutors, he sort of has said Barr was on the team. But there's no evidence that Barr was involved in this scheme to, you know, as Democrats contend, we know, withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for a Biden investigation. But it, again, just shows how unusual this is that Barr is carrying out this kind of investigation and he's sort of in this position.

DAVIES: You know, when the phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy occurred, that prompted this complaint by a whistleblower from the intelligence community, and Barr's Justice Department certainly had a role in handling that complaint. What happened?

ROHDE: So this, again, was sort of a fascinating example of the power of the presidency versus Congress. Under law, you know, whistleblower complaints are supposed to go first to the inspector general, which is, again, an independent body set up by Congress after Watergate to, you know, act as a check on abuse and waste in the executive branch. And then the inspector general normally, if it's an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint, would send that to the relevant committees of Congress, and in this case, the key body would have been the Democrat-controlled House Intelligence Committee.

There was debate about whether it should be handed over, and the question was sent to the Justice Department. And Barr's Justice Department said no, that it should not be handed over. It wasn't urgent legally. There was a question about - should there be a criminal investigation? Was the president soliciting campaign assistance? And there was a finding by the Justice Department under Barr that there was no way to create a quantifiable value for the announcement by Ukraine of an investigation into the Bidens, and therefore, it couldn't be investigated.

Many legal scholars sort of laughed at that rationale. Of course there's a huge value to having an announcement of an investigation by the Bidens from Ukraine, but Barr's Justice Department didn't move the complaint. And it moved because of, you know, journalism. Great reporting by The Washington Post, you know, made the complaint public, and then it was eventually, under pressure, turned over to the House Intelligence Committee. And eventually, due to public pressure and more and more reporting, the White House released the call transcript. So there's questions, again, about why it seems that Barr's Justice Department blocked the release of the whistleblower complaint.

DAVIES: So now that the impeachment trial is unfolding, what role is Barr playing, and what role might he play as this all unfolds?

ROHDE: As President Trump's impeachment trial unfolds, yet again, we're having this great debate about, you know, how much power should the president have, how much power should Congress have to investigate the president's conduct. And Barr isn't directly involved in the trial. He's not, you know, defending President Trump in the Senate. But his broad, you know, support, his philosophical support for a stronger presidency, is clearly helping Trump. He gave a speech in the middle of the impeachment investigation, the hearings that the House was sending at the Federalist Society in New York. And he sort of mocked the left. He said the left was destroying norms and radicalizing and endangering kind of, you know, the constitutional system in their opposition to Trump.

And it was sort of - you know, the tenor of it shocked people. And it was seen, again, as a partisan speech to kind of rally the Republican base. He talked about Trump as the heir to Reagan. He, you know, praised his - you know, for nominating conservative judges. And it was right at a time when Trump was under, you know, a lot of criticism and there was damaging testimony coming before these House committees from State Department officials and others. So you could see him - I don't know - you know, making more speeches like that, backing up the need for a powerful president and sort of dismissing investigations by Democrats and Congress as partisan and as irrelevant.

DAVIES: Well, David Rohde, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ROHDE: Thank you.

DAVIES: David Rohde's story about William Barr is in the January 20 edition of The New Yorker and at newyorker.com.

Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Star Trek: Picard," starring Sir Patrick Stewart, which premieres tonight on CBS All Access. This is FRESH AIR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.