On Monday, William Barr’s nearly two-year tenure as Donald Trump’s Attorney General came to an abrupt end. The President, true to form, announced the departure of yet another senior official via Twitter. Pundits described Trump’s timing—he posted the tweet twelve minutes after the Electoral College had affirmed Joe Biden’s election—as that of a petty narcissist trying to regain the spotlight. Barr’s motive for resigning was less clear, but, for weeks, reports had circulated that the two men were barely speaking. Barr, once the most feared, criticized, and effective member of Trump’s Cabinet appeared to have finally broken with the President, and resigned.
Last week, it emerged that Barr had known for months that investigations of Hunter Biden’s taxes and financial dealings had been opened, but he adhered to a long-standing Justice Department practice and did not disclose any information that could influence the outcome of a pending election. After Biden won, Barr refused to confirm Trump’s baseless claims that the contest had been stolen from him. This weekend, Trump blamed his Attorney General for his defeat. “Why didn’t Bill Barr reveal the truth to the public, before the Election, about Hunter Biden,” Trump tweeted. “Big disadvantage for Republicans at the polls!”
On Monday, the two men engaged in political pantomime. In the tweet announcing Barr’s departure, Trump said that they had just had a “very nice meeting” and said Barr had done “an outstanding job.” Barr released an effusive resignation letter that hailed Trump’s “unprecedented achievements” despite “a partisan onslaught” that “few could have weathered” and “in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.” A senior law-enforcement official, who asked not to be named, described the exchange to me as scripted: “I think that this was a negotiated departure. The President was clearly frustrated. The A.G. was clearly frustrated.”
Former Justice Departments officials and legal experts were unequivocal in their assessment of Barr’s legacy. They credited him for breaking with Trump in the prelude to and aftermath of the election. But they predicted that he would go down in history as one of the country’s most destructive Attorneys General. “The few times Barr put the nation ahead of the President will not atone for the many times he chose the opposite. He leaves a wounded department,” Stephen Gillers, an expert in legal ethics at New York University School of Law, told me. “His tenure as Attorney General will be akin to the plague years at the Justice Department,” David Laufman, a former Justice Department official, said. “I think his tenure has been an indefensible and disgraceful betrayal of long-established norms,” Donald Ayer, a former Deputy Attorney General, noted. (The senior law-enforcement official was more magnanimous, calling Barr’s legacy a “mixed bag.”) A spokesperson for Barr did not respond to a request for comment.
What made Barr unusual were the disparate qualities he exhibited as Attorney General. He was aggressive, competent, and astute; even critics admitted that at times his legal machinations were “devilishly clever.” He was also not simply a Trump acolyte. For decades, Barr has had a consistent legal philosophy: he adamantly opposes the Supreme Court activism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies that legalized abortion, curtailed the powers of the President, and, he has contended, reduced the freedoms enjoyed by religiously observant Americans. He was a committed Reagan-era conservative, fervently advocating a law-and-order approach to criminal justice, including strong public support for the police, the use of overwhelming force to restore order, and the employment of the death penalty. What emerged unexpectedly in the Trump era was his willingness to act in a nakedly partisan manner in order to politically aid the President he served, a pattern reminiscent of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s Attorney General.
The result was a dizzying array of actions in the twenty-two months that Barr has spent in the office. He distorted the findings of the Mueller report, reduced the penalties faced by Trump loyalists whom Mueller prosecuted, expanded the Administration’s immigration crackdown, attempted to restrict access to abortion, aided attempts to win public funding for religious schools, executed more federal prisoners than any of his modern predecessors, criticized judges who ruled against Trump, defied congressional oversight, said that organized religion was under “assault” from the liberal élite, vastly exaggerated the role of Antifa protesters in last summer’s marches for racial justice, reportedly ordered the police operation that enabled Trump’s Bible photo-op in Lafayette Square, called pandemic stay-at-home orders the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” since slavery, said a Trump reëlection loss would plunge the country “irrevocably” down a “socialist path,” and warned that mail-in ballots would “open the floodgates” to fraud.
Ayer, the former Deputy Attorney General, said that Barr undermined decades of Justice Department practice aimed at giving Americans confidence that the law applies equally to all citizens. “Throughout much of 2020, there was the Attorney General, using the department’s resources and his own bully pulpit to echo and reinforce the President’s campaign narrative,” Ayer said. “He did so many things this year that an Attorney General should never do.”
The senior law-enforcement official countered that Barr is sincere in his belief that a strong Presidency is necessary in order to insure effective government, and that judges often curtail a President’s ability to implement policy. In speeches, he has said that congressional oversight and the appointment of special counsels have become so politicized that the party in opposition uses them to lay relentless political siege to the Administration in power. The official told me that Barr really thinks that the F.B.I.’s 2016 investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia should never have been conducted. This last point is, in part, a reflection of Barr’s belief that F.B.I. directors, who officially report to the Attorney General, have become too independent. “He truly believes that some of the things the F.B.I. did was wrong,” the official said, referring to the Trump-Russia investigation. “I think he wanted to rein in the F.B.I. more.”
The problem with Barr’s views of the Trump-Russia investigation is that they fly in the face of fact. They are, in short, Trumpian. The exhaustive investigations by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia did intervene to aid Trump in the 2016 campaign, and that Trump campaign officials had met with a Russian intelligence officer or with individuals with ties to the Russian government. A review by the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the F.B.I. investigation was legally justified, given the actions of Trump’s associates. Yet Barr, in a move that pleased the President, launched a criminal investigation of F.B.I. officials who opened the Trump-Russia probe. In October, he made John Durham, the federal prosecutor conducting that investigation, a special counsel, which will prevent Biden’s Attorney General from significantly limiting his work.
Attention now turns to Barr’s successor, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who will serve in the post during the final four weeks of Trump’s Presidency. Trump will likely pressure him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hunter Biden, to keep alive his dark claims of election theft, Biden-family graft, and vast corruption on the part of the liberal élite. Rosen’s record does not inspire confidence in his ability to resist Trump. A staunch conservative who has never worked as a prosecutor, Rosen played a leading role in the Justice Department effort to block the publication of the former national-security adviser John Bolton’s unflattering memoir of his time in a dysfunctional Trump White House.
Barr deserves credit for refusing to go along with Trump’s post-election de-facto coup attempt. But he also exacerbated the explosion of “alternative facts” in the Trump era. At a time when division and confusion regarding basic facts were already rampant among Americans, Barr used his position as a fact-finder to increase discord, not ease it. He decried the special-counsel probe and other investigations of Trump as politically motivated inquisitions. Whatever his intentions, his legacy will be that he then unleashed those same demons. Barr has extended the cycle of politically motivated criminal investigations that increasingly plague American politics.