Monday, July 29, 2019

Attorney General William P. Barr is quickly emerging as the most influential figure in the second half of President Trump’s term - Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

June 9, 2019

People Are Trying to Figure Out William Barr. He’s Busy Stockpiling Power.

WASHINGTON — Not long before Attorney General William P. Barr released the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, he strategized with Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, about one of his next moves: investigating the investigators.

Over a dinner of steak, potatoes and carrots in a wood-paneled conference room off Mr. Barr’s Justice Department office, the two discussed their shared suspicions that the officials who initially investigated the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had abused their powers.

They strongly agreed, Mr. Graham said, that “maybe one of the most important things we’ll ever do is clean up this mess.”

Less than two months later, Mr. Barr began his cleanup with the most powerful of brooms: a presidential order commanding intelligence agencies to cooperate with his inquiry, and sweeping power to declassify and make public their secrets — even if they objected.

The move illustrates Mr. Barr’s swift rise in the pantheon of President Trump’s most prominent and loyal allies — and in the eyes of Mr. Trump himself. In a cabinet stocked with government neophytes and placeholders, the deeply experienced Mr. Barr is quickly emerging as the most influential figure in the second half of Mr. Trump’s term.
“He is the closest thing we have to Dick Cheney,” said Charles J. Cooper, a former senior Justice Department official, referring to President George W. Bush’s unusually powerful vice president. “He is a strong-willed man with a forceful personality” and “well-formed, deeply studied views.”

But his rising power over the intelligence community has been accompanied by swelling disillusionment with Mr. Barr among former national security officials and ideological moderates. When he agreed late last year to take the job, many of them had cast him as a Republican straight shooter, steeped in pre-Trump mores, who would restrain an impetuous president.
Now they see in him someone who has glossed over Mr. Trump’s misdeeds, smeared his investigators and positioned himself to possibly declassify information for political gain — not the Bill Barr they thought they knew.
“It is shocking how much he has echoed the president’s own statements,” said Mary McCord, who led the Justice Department’s national security division at the end of the Obama administration and the start of the Trump era. “I thought he was an institutionalist who would protect the department from political influence. But it seems like everything he has done so far has counseled in the opposite direction.”
So which is the real William P. Barr?
Is he the upright defender of the presidency who used his discretion to disclose nearly all of the 448-page Mueller report, even though it hurt Mr. Trump? Or is he a manipulator who has skewed the special counsel’s evidence in Mr. Trump’s favor and is now endorsing questionable legal arguments to fend off legitimate congressional inquiry?
An examination of his record, coupled with interviews of more than two dozen associates, suggests elements of both: He is neither as apolitical as his defenders claim, nor as partisan as his detractors fear. Instead, he is a complex figure whom the right cannot count on to be a Trumpland hero and whom the left cannot dismiss as nothing more than a political hack.
Mr. Barr has defended President Trump, saying he has seen “no evidence” that Mr. Trump has undermined the nation’s institutions.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

“I would describe Barr as a cross between Mr. Wolfe, the fixer in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ and one of the wise men-type upper-crust figures who believe they protect and shape America,” said Ketan Jhaveri, a former Justice Department official.
Defenders like Paul T. Cappuccio, a key adviser to Mr. Barr when he first served as attorney general under President George Bush, say Mr. Barr is anything but a factotum for Mr. Trump.
“If I had told you a year ago that President Trump would pick an attorney general who would not fire Bob Mueller, who would not interfere in his work,” and then “get the report out promptly with no redactions for executive privilege,” he said, “you would have told me I was smoking the stuff that’s now legal in certain states.”
Given the president’s threat to indiscriminately declassify every document related to the Russia investigation, Mr. Barr’s ability to persuade Mr. Trump to outsource those judgments to him is comforting, said Jack Goldsmith, a conservative former senior Justice Department official who has repeatedly criticized Mr. Trump.
“There is no way to know now what Barr will find in his investigation or whether or how he will use this power,” said Mr. Goldsmith, who is also a Harvard Law School professor. “But Barr is not someone inclined to harm our national security bureaucracy.”
Mr. Barr, 69, declined to be interviewed for this article. He brushes aside the debate, seemingly imperturbable. When a Democratic senator, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, accused him at a widely watched congressional hearing of abusing his public office, lying to Congress and serving as Mr. Trump’s toady, he just stared at her impassively.
“If you had an EKG strapped on Bill Barr, the needle would not have moved at all,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, political independent and longtime friend.
“The idea that these attacks are having an impact on Bill Barr?” he said. “These people have no idea who they are dealing with.”

Long a Believer in Presidential Powers

Mr. Barr first served as attorney general from November 1991 until the end of President George Bush’s term.CreditBettmann, via Getty Images

William Pelham Barr was born May 23, 1950, to a Manhattan family that prized scholarship, Catholicism and Republican conservatism. His father was a World War II intelligence officer who became an assistant dean at Columbia University, then headed the elite, private Dalton School before resigning in a dispute with trustees.
A Republican Party district leader in an overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood, Mr. Barr’s father criticized his liberal colleagues as sloppy thinkers with “messianic” complexes, earning occasional headlines calling him a maverick.
Mr. Barr first served as attorney general from November 1991 until the end of President George Bush’s term.CreditBettmann, via Getty Images
William Pelham Barr was born May 23, 1950, to a Manhattan family that prized scholarship, Catholicism and Republican conservatism. His father was a World War II intelligence officer who became an assistant dean at Columbia University, then headed the elite, private Dalton School before resigning in a dispute with trustees.
A Republican Party district leader in an overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood, Mr. Barr’s father criticized his liberal colleagues as sloppy thinkers with “messianic” complexes, earning occasional headlines calling him a maverick.
Mr. Barr first served as attorney general from November 1991 until the end of President George Bush’s term.CreditBettmann, via Getty Images
William Pelham Barr was born May 23, 1950, to a Manhattan family that prized scholarship, Catholicism and Republican conservatism. His father was a World War II intelligence officer who became an assistant dean at Columbia University, then headed the elite, private Dalton School before resigning in a dispute with trustees.
A Republican Party district leader in an overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood, Mr. Barr’s father criticized his liberal colleagues as sloppy thinkers with “messianic” complexes, earning occasional headlines calling him a maverick.
Young Bill Barr was also a defender of Republican causes at Horace Mann, the private school he attended in the Bronx. “He was conservative in attitude, demeanor and politics in a way that was distinctive,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster and former fellow student.
But he came across as thoughtful, not ideologically rigid, Mr. Schoen said. He also had a disarming wit and warm demeanor, qualities that later in life attracted a broad circle of friends, including some Democratic lawyers who heartily disagreed with his politics and legal philosophy. “It’s hard not to like him,” said Mr. Cooper, the former senior Justice Department official.
He studied at Columbia University, eventually obtaining a master’s degree in government and Chinese studies. At a fraternity party he hosted, he met his wife, Christine, a student at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. By age 23, he was married.
Mr. Barr, who once told a high school counselor he wanted to lead the C.I.A., began as an intern there. He took night classes at George Washington University Law School, figuring he could fall back on law if he got “boxed in counting rivets on Chinese tanks” as an intelligence analyst, he later said. It quickly became his passion.
He clerked for Malcolm R. Wilkey, a noted conservative judge on the federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Five years earlier, Judge Wilkey had dissented from the court’s historic opinion ordering President Richard M. Nixon to turn over his secret Watergate tape recordings, arguing that discussions between a president and his advisers are protected by “absolute privilege.”
Like the judge, Mr. Barr came to embrace an aggressive view of presidential powers outlined in Article II of the Constitution.
“Bill’s natural default is Article II,” said Mr. Turley, a defender of congressional powers defined in Article I. “He views a strong executive as more needed than ever to stabilize the country and the world at large.”
In between stints at a Washington law firm, Mr. Barr worked from 1982 to 1983 at the Reagan White House under C. Boyden Gray, then counsel to Vice President George Bush. Mr. Gray, who shared Mr. Barr’s belief that the post-Watergate reforms had unduly eroded the powers of the presidency, became his patron.
When Mr. Bush was elected president, Mr. Gray helped elevate Mr. Barr to head the Justice Department’s powerful Office of Legal Counsel, whose interpretations of the Constitution and law bind the executive branch unless overruled by the attorney general or president.

Mr. Barr, then acting attorney general, at a news conference in 1991 about the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.CreditBarry Thumma/Associated Press
Over the next four years, as he rose to deputy attorney general, then attorney general, Mr. Barr put into practice his expansive view of the executive branch’s authority. He was deeply involved in the administration’s decision to invade Panama and arrest its strongman, Manuel Noriega, a move the United Nations condemned as a violation of international law.
He advised President Bush that he did not need lawmakers’ approval to unilaterally attack Iraq in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, although he recommended that Mr. Bush seek a resolution of congressional support anyway.
In that post-Watergate era, the White House was very deferential to the Justice Department, Mr. Barr said in a 2001 interview with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Once, when Mr. Bush asked if he could brief the National Security Council on a pending indictment of terrorists, Mr. Barr was flabbergasted, as he later recalled: “Would it be O.K.? Well, I work for you; you’re the top law enforcement officer. Of course it’s O.K.”
Mr. Barr’s forte was his administrative skills, said Nancy Baker, a scholar of attorneys general who interviewed him for the Miller Center. “He had a comfort level with the levers of power and how you get what you want” that extended to the Oval Office, she said.
When Attorney General Dick Thornburgh resigned in mid-1991 to run for the Senate and Mr. Bush picked Mr. Barr to replace him, the president notified Mr. Barr that the White House would choose a deputy with more political clout than he had. Mr. Barr replied: “The attorney general’s balls are in the deputy attorney general’s pocket, and I’m not putting my balls in anyone’s pocket I don’t know.”
He saw some matters through both a legal and political lens. Immigration law, he said, dictated that thousands of Haitians who had fled the island nation on rickety boats seeking asylum after a coup should not be allowed to enter the United States. But in discussions with other officials, he also pointed out the political damage if they reached American shores. “You want 80,000 Haitians to descend on Florida months before the election?” he said. “Gimme a break.”

While he crafted a broad policy agenda, a White House preoccupied with Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign mainly ignored it. Largely for that reason, Ms. Baker said, she graded his tenure, which lasted just 17 months, a B-minus.
His treatment of independent counsels, a post-Watergate reform, in some ways foreshadowed the division over his handling of the findings of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. He abhorred the now-defunct independent counsel statute, saying it created “headhunters” who answered to no one.
Nonetheless, just days before the act was to expire, he appointed one to look into charges that administration officials had tampered with passport records of Mr. Bush’s opponent in his bid for re-election, Bill Clinton. White House aides were furious, Mr. Barr later said, but “I had to do it.”
On the other hand, he strove to put an end to the inquiry of another independent counsel, whom he described as out of control.
Lawrence E. Walsh spent almost seven years investigating how the Reagan administration had secretly sold arms to Iran to win the release of American hostages, then used the profits to secretly arm anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua despite a law cutting off assistance to them. The obstruction of justice case he mounted against Caspar Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, threatened to reveal that Mr. Bush, as vice president, was more implicated in the arms shipments than he had claimed.

Mr. Barr served under President George Bush for his final 17 months in office, but the White House was preoccupied with re-election and mostly ignored his policy agenda.CreditBarry Thumma/Associated Press
In his waning days in office, Mr. Bush resolved to pardon Mr. Weinberger. “I went over and told the president I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others,” Mr. Barr later said. Mr. Walsh called the pardons “the last card” in the cover-up.
Six years later, senior Clinton administration officials were equally critical of the independent counsel Ken Starr’s far-flung investigation of Mr. Clinton. But in that case, in a letter signed by three other former attorneys general, Mr. Barr assailed the officials, not the investigators.
The attacks on Mr. Starr “appear to have the improper purpose of influencing and impeding an ongoing criminal investigation and intimidating possible jurors, witnesses and even investigators,” the 1998 letter said. Twenty-one years later, those comments seem strikingly at odds with how Mr. Barr described Mr. Trump’s efforts to interfere with the Mueller inquiry.
While he periodically opined on other legal and political issues after President Bush’s defeat, Mr. Barr concentrated on the corporate work that made him a multimillionaire. Other lawyers described him as a formidable general counsel for GTE, the telecommunications giant that is now Verizon.
Mr. Barr provided the Justice Department with information to block mergers of competitors that might create unfair monopolies — and harm his company, said Mr. Jhaveri, a former antitrust lawyer with the Justice Department’s telecommunications task force. “With a lot of help from Barr,” he said, the department prevented a merger between WorldCom and Sprint. Mr. Barr knew “what to put into the subpoenas and what issues the companies would be vulnerable on,” he said.
A few years later, after GTE became Verizon, Mr. Barr worked quietly to vanquish the competition again. A former engineer from MCI called his office with a lead: MCI may have wrongfully routed phone traffic through Canada to avoid fees — a potential national security risk. Mr. Barr chased down information from other former MCI employees and rival telecom companies.
Then he took his case to federal regulators and to James B. Comey, then the United States attorney in Manhattan. He also lobbied against new federal contracts to MCI. The investigations exacerbated MCI’s many other woes, and in 2005, Verizon acquired it.
By 2012, Mr. Barr had been semiretired for three years, serving on corporate boards, traveling and playing the bagpipes. Then, the youngest of his three daughters, Meg McGaughey, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
She said in an interview that her father tackled her illness as if he were deconstructing a complex legal case. When standard treatments failed her and her odds of survival plummeted, he steeped himself in medical studies until a stem-cell transplant worked.
Always thick-skinned, she said, her father emerged from her lengthy ordeal even more unflappable. “If it’s not about my daughter’s being mortally ill,” he said this year in an interview with a Fox News contributor, “it’s nothing.”

At Justice, a Firewall — or a Danger?

To Mr. Trump’s advisers, Mr. Barr seemed like the perfect replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, second from the right. Between them is Rod J. Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, and on the right is the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray.CreditLeah Millis/Reuters
By all accounts, Mr. Barr was not anxious to join Mr. Trump’s team. Although he contributed to Mr. Trump’s general election campaign, Jeb Bush was his first choice for the Republican nomination in 2016. He refused to represent Mr. Trump as a private criminal lawyer, saying, “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.”
But Mr. Trump’s advisers saw him as the perfect replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions when the president forced him out in November: someone with Republican establishment gravitas and distinguished legal pedigree who seemed to share at least some of the president’s views.
Mr. Barr had publicly called Mr. Mueller’s investigation of obstruction of justice accusations against the president “asinine” and, in a memo he gave to Justice Department officials, “grossly irresponsible.” He had said he saw far less reason to scrutinize the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia than to investigate whether donations to Hillary Clinton’s family foundation had influenced her actions as secretary of state.
Among those who recommended him was Abbe D. Lowell, the criminal defense lawyer representing Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka. Finally, Mr. Barr’s expansive view of executive powers suggested he would strongly defend Mr. Trump from House Democrats determined to uncover his hidden tax records and more.
Ms. McGaughey said her father “really struggled deciding whether or not to do this.” J. Michael Luttig, a former appeals court judge and longtime friend, said he ultimately decided he was unwilling to sit on the sidelines “at a moment when the country is wrapped around the axle to the point of constitutional and political paralysis.”
He had two goals, which he is now executing, friends said: to serve as a firewall between the White House and the Justice Department, which he reveres, and to keep the crisis unleashed by the investigation of Mr. Trump from weakening the presidency. Critics like Paul Rosenzweig, a former prosecutor, said that what he is actually doing is “putting his thumb on the scale” for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Rosenzweig served on the independent counsel team that investigated President Clinton and as a homeland security official under President George W. Bush. A critic of Mr. Trump, he called Mr. Barr “a situational ethicist who sees legal issues through the prism of what benefits him and his party.”
Mr. Barr’s decisions after he received the evidence from Mr. Mueller’s two-year investigation are likely to long be debated. Both men were on unplowed ground, without obvious historical precedent or definitive Justice Department guidelines. They disagreed on legal issues, what to tell the public and when, and it appears, the gravity of the accusations against Mr. Trump.
At a news conference, Mr. Mueller stressed that interfering with a criminal investigation “strikes at the core” of the justice system. Mr. Barr has suggested that Mr. Trump’s relentless attacks on and efforts to fire the special counsel were the understandable reaction of a leader frustrated by an investigation he saw as unjust.

Both Mr. Barr and Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, were on uncharted territory regarding the special counsel’s investigation, without obvious historical precedent or definitive Justice Department guidelines.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
Rod J. Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general whom Mr. Trump excoriated for appointing Mr. Mueller, said in an interview that he believed that Mr. Barr’s critics had been unfair. He said he agreed with Mr. Barr’s conclusion that regardless of whether department policy allows indicting a sitting president, the evidence against Mr. Trump was insufficient to warrant criminal prosecution.
“A few years from now, after all of this is resolved, some of Barr’s critics might conclude that his approach was a reasonable way to navigate through a difficult situation,” he said.
Some friends had speculated that Mr. Barr returned to the department as attorney general just to see it through that crisis. That is clearly not so.
“He dives right into things,” said Mr. Rosenstein, who left the department last month. “He doesn’t act like somebody who just arrived recently. He acts like someone who has been here all along for 30 years.”
Unlike Mr. Sessions, whose voice was drowned out by Mr. Trump’s tirades, Mr. Barr is engaging across a broad spectrum. He started out meeting United States attorneys at a rate of two a day. He personally called the mother of Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was taken hostage and killed in Syria, with directions to his office, where she asked for help in finding out what happened to her daughter.
In contrast to Mr. Sessions, who refused to even sign a requisite pledge to provide a workplace free of discrimination, Mr. Barr ordered an investigation into the treatment of gay and transgender employees.
Every week seems to bring fresh signs of how closely his quest to defend the presidency dovetails with Mr. Trump’s political interests. At a May rally in Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump launched into his usual blistering denunciation of those who investigated him and his campaign, then evoked Mr. Barr.
As the crowd erupted into chants of “lock them up,” Mr. Trump clapped along, and then declared, with a mirthless smile, “Well, we have a great new attorney general who’s going to give it a very fair look — a very fair look.”

After the release of the Mueller report, which was the subject of intense media scrutiny, Mr. Barr is trying to return some sense of stability to the Justice Department.Credit Tom Brenner for The New York Times
Under Mr. Barr, the Justice Department is fighting congressional subpoenas on the grounds they lack any legitimate legislative purpose — an argument that federal judges have rejected in related cases. The House Judiciary Committee has recommended holding him in contempt of Congress, and House Democrats are planning to vote this week on whether to authorize the panel to take Mr. Barr to court, for defying subpoenas for the full text of the Mueller report and underlying evidence.
His review of whether counterintelligence officials acted improperly in investigating links between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign — the inquiry that spawned Mr. Mueller’s inquiry — is clearly Mr. Barr’s biggest initiative. One of his concerns is the F.B.I.’s partial reliance on research financed by Democratic Party interests to obtain court approval to wiretap of a former Trump campaign adviser. Even before becoming attorney general, he recently told The Wall Street Journal, “I felt the rules were being changed to hurt Trump.”
In comments a week ago to CBS News, he delivered his strongest defense yet of the president. He said he had seen “no evidence” that Mr. Trump had undermined the nation’s institutions, but his investigators — whom he has accused of “spying” on the Trump campaign — might have.
“The idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him, and you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this president, that is where the shredding of our norms and institutions is occurring,” he said. Asked whether investigators had committed treason, as Mr. Trump claims, he answered, “Not as a legal matter.”
Mr. Graham said Mr. Barr’s review could result in new rules governing use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to target someone close to a political campaign. That would shore up public support for counterintelligence tools, he said, and “make sure this never happens again.”
David Kris, a former assistant attorney general in charge of national security now with the Culper Partners consulting firm, said fears were mounting that the attorney general is not the department’s salvation, but a “real danger.” He himself is not ready to go that far, he said — yet.

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