January 20, 2020 Issue
The Attorney General’s mission to maximize executive power and protect the Presidency
By David Rohde
For decades, Barr has argued that Congress is a menace to the Presidency. As Attorney General, he’s poised to fight back.Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Last October, Attorney General William Barr appeared at Notre Dame Law School to make a case for ideological warfare. Before an assembly of students and faculty, Barr claimed that the “organized destruction” of religion was under way in the United States. “Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values,” he said. Barr, a conservative Catholic, blamed the spread of “secularism and moral relativism” for a rise in “virtually every measure of social pathology”—from the “wreckage of the family” to “record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.”
The speech was less a staid legal lecture than a catalogue of grievances accumulated since the Reagan era, when Barr first enlisted in the culture wars. It included a series of contentious claims. He argued, for example, that the Founders of the United States saw religion as essential to democracy. “In the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people—a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order,” he said. Barr ended his address by urging his listeners to resist the “constant seductions of our contemporary society” and launch a “moral renaissance.”
Donald Trump does not share Barr’s long-standing concern about the role of religion in civic life. (Though he often says that the Bible is his favorite book, when he was asked which Testament he preferred, he answered, “The whole Bible is incredible.”) What the two men have in common is a sense of being surrounded by a hostile insurgency. A few days after Barr’s speech, Trump told an audience at the conservative Values Voter Summit, “Extreme left-wing radicals, both inside and outside government, are determined to shred our Constitution and eradicate the beliefs we all cherish. They are trying to hound you from the workplace, expel you from the public square, and weaken the American family, and indoctrinate our children.” As the effort to remove the President has gathered strength, Barr’s and Trump’s political interests have converged. Both men combine the pro-business instincts of traditional Republicans with a focus on culture clash and grievance. Both believe that any constraint on Presidential power weakens the United States.
Eleven months after being sworn in, Barr is the most feared, criticized, and effective member of Trump’s Cabinet. Like no Attorney General since the Watergate era, he has acted as the President’s political sword and shield. When the special counsel Robert Mueller released the findings of his inquiry into connections between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia, Barr presented a sanitized four-page summary before the report was made public, which the President used to declare himself cleared. At the behest of the President, Barr launched an investigation of the F.B.I.’s Trump-Russia probe and the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia intervened on Trump’s behalf in the election. Rather than seek a nonpartisan commission, Barr appointed a federal prosecutor, reinforcing the President’s claims of a “coup.” When an exhaustive review by the Justice Department’s inspector general found no evidence of political bias in the F.B.I. investigation, Barr issued a statement misrepresenting its findings and arguing that the evidence in the Russia probe was “consistently exculpatory”—leaving out the fact that five people connected to Trump’s campaign have been indicted for lying to investigators.
Barr maintains that Article II of the Constitution gives a President control of all executive-branch agencies, without restriction; in practice, this means that Trump would be within his rights to oversee an investigation into his own misconduct. (Barr declined multiple interview requests.) Throughout the House’s impeachment inquiry, Trump dismissed subpoenas for documents and testimony from Administration officials—a step taken by no other President. Barr and Pat Cipollone, a White House lawyer who once worked as Barr’s speechwriter, have also rejected subpoenas, flouting a congressional power plainly delineated in the Constitution. Donald Ayer, who served as Deputy Attorney General under George H. W. Bush, said, “They take the position that they don’t even have to show up. That’s totally outrageous. It’s denying the legitimacy of another branch of government in the name of executive supremacy.” Ayer described Barr’s ideas about Presidential power as “chilling” and “deeply disturbing.” If Trump survives a trial in the Senate, a President’s ability to resist congressional oversight will vastly expand. Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, warned that Barr’s and Trump’s efforts could permanently alter the balance of power among the branches of American government. “If those views take hold, we will have lost what was won in the Revolution—we will have a Chief Executive who is more powerful than the king,” Tribe said. “That will be a disaster for the survival of the Republic.”
At the age of sixty-nine, Barr is grayer, heavier, wealthier, and more combative than he was when he served as George H. W. Bush’s Attorney General, twenty-eight years ago. But his ideology has not changed much, according to friends and former colleagues. “I don’t know why anyone is surprised by his views,” Jack Goldsmith, a law professor who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush Administration, told me. “He has always had a broad view of executive power.”
A longtime member of the capital’s legal establishment, Barr is described by both allies and adversaries as a formidable thinker who relishes debating issues of Roman history, Christian theology, and modern morality. During his first tenure as Attorney General, he earned the nickname Rage and Cave: when he felt that his principles had been violated, he tended to bluster, then gradually accept the situation. Colleagues describe him as both supportive and self-regarding, happy to delegate but impatient with incompetence. A self-styled polymath, Barr has strong opinions on issues ranging from legal arcana to the proper mustard to apply to a sandwich. He designed his own home, a sprawling house in McLean, Virginia, and is not above boasting about it. During a trip to Scotland with a friend, he quizzed the owner of a local inn about whether the paint on the wall was “Card Room Green or Green Smoke, by Farrow & Ball.” The innkeeper had no idea what he was talking about.
Like other prominent conservatives, Barr formed his politics in reaction to a liberal consensus around him. He grew up on Riverside Drive, in Manhattan, among the bookish élite of the Upper West Side. As his neighbors hoped that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society would flourish, the Barr family supported Barry Goldwater for President.
Barr’s mother, Mary, taught at Columbia, and worked as an editor at Redbook. His father, Donald, was the headmaster at Dalton, a progressive private school on the Upper East Side. During the Second World War, Donald had served in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the C.I.A. As headmaster, he believed that discipline instilled morality, helping to fend off the “social pathology” that his son warned about decades later. While birth control and feminism were reshaping conventions around sex and work, Donald insisted on the old ways. Chip Fisher, who attended Dalton at the time, remembered him as brilliant but out of place: “It was like having Jonathan Edwards at the pulpit.” Dalton parents saw Barr as autocratic, insular, and obsessed with adherence to rules. In the early seventies, after a protracted and ugly public fight with the school’s board, he was forced out of his job.
Mary Barr, an observant Catholic, sent William and his three brothers to Corpus Christi elementary school. Even there, Barr was an outlier. In the first grade, he delivered a speech in favor of Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidential campaign. Later, he declared his support for Richard Nixon, and a nun promised to pray for him. In high school, at Horace Mann, Barr—known then as Billy—presented fellow-students with a line-by-line exegesis of the Constitution. One classmate told me that Barr delighted in intellectual combat: “That smug, low-key demeanor—he really loved to push people’s buttons.” Garrick Beck, another classmate, disliked Barr’s politics but admired his integrity. Even then, he said, Barr was convinced that only a strong President could protect America from threats. “How else does a nice guy like Barr defend this boorish tycoon?” Beck said, of Trump. “I think he is doing it because he is a true believer.”
When Barr was an undergraduate, at Columbia, his classmates marched against the war in Vietnam. Barr wanted instead to buttress American power. He had told a guidance counsellor that he hoped one day to lead the C.I.A., and, during breaks from school, he spent two summers as an intern there. In 1973, he finished a master’s degree in Government and Chinese Studies and returned to the C.I.A. as an intelligence analyst. At the time, a Senate investigation—known as the Church Committee—was uncovering decades of abuses at the C.I.A., and laws were being passed to curtail them. Barr later recalled the effort as a kind of assault, delivering “body blows” to the agency.
Barr spent two years as an analyst, but he was also considering a career in law. He started taking night classes at George Washington University Law School, and, in 1975, he transferred to the agency’s Office of Legislative Counsel. The following year, George H. W. Bush became the C.I.A. director, and Barr helped prepare him for testimony on Capitol Hill. One hearing involved a bill that would require the C.I.A. to send a written notification to Americans whose mail the agency had secretly opened. Among the bill’s sponsors was Bella Abzug, a liberal Democrat who represented Barr’s old neighborhood in New York. As a defense attorney, Abzug had won a stay of execution for Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman in Mississippi; she had also represented several Americans accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being Communists. The C.I.A. spied on her for twenty years, at times opening her mail.
As Abzug and her colleagues grilled Bush about the C.I.A.’s activities, Barr saw a chance to impress the new director. “I went up and sat in the seat that’s behind the witness,” he recalled in a 2001 oral history of the Bush Administration. “Someone asked him a question, and he leaned back and said, ‘How the hell do I answer this one?’ I whispered the answer in his ear, and he gave it, and I thought, ‘Who is this guy? He listens to legal advice when it’s given.’ ”
When Barr began his career in government, the idea that the Presidency was too weak might have been considered eccentric, even radical. Mostly, people were concerned that it had grown too strong. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, the former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published an influential book called “The Imperial Presidency,” in which he enumerated the habits of potential autocrats: “The all-purpose invocation of ‘national security,’ the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the refusal to spend funds appropriated by Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press, the use of the White House as a base for espionage and sabotage directed against the political opposition.”
Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, and embodied an image that was anything but imperial. He carried his own luggage, enrolled his daughter in public school, and shunned “Hail to the Chief” as an excessive display of pomp. More important, he enacted reforms that curtailed executive-branch power. He signed strict ethics legislation that empowered independent counsels and inspectors general to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics, including the conservative legal scholar Antonin Scalia, complained that the changes crippled the Presidency, but the new regulations had broad support from Congress and from the public.
With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, things began to change. The Republican Party, after three decades as a minority in Congress, took control of the Senate—part of a conservative resurgence that Reagan hailed as “morning in America.” In 1982, the White House hired Barr as a deputy assistant director for legal policy. He fell in with a like-minded group of young lawyers, who began devising a legal armature for the executive branch as it tried to restore its power.
In 1986, Reagan appointed Scalia to the Supreme Court. That same year, aides sent Attorney General Edwin Meese a report, recommending steps to widen the power of the Presidency. Reagan, they said, should veto more legislation, and decline to enforce laws that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch.” The report outlined a legal argument that the President had unrestricted control of all executive-branch functions, and also questioned the constitutionality of special counsels and inspectors general. In a speech, Meese argued that even Supreme Court rulings should not be viewed as “the supreme law of the land.” (Two years later, Meese resigned, amid accusations of helping to steer federal contracts to a friend.)
In 1987, an independent counsel was appointed to investigate whether a Justice Department official named Ted Olson had lied to Congress during testimony regarding the Environmental Protection Agency. Meese and other conservatives challenged the move as unconstitutional. In their view, independent prosecutors were nothing more than unaccountable, costly political weapons, which Democrats used to smear Republican Administrations. (In fact, according to Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University’s law school, both parties have sought to use such counsels for political advantage. But, he added, they remain necessary to limit abuses: “What the special counsel does is provide a check.”)
The resulting case, Morrison v. Olson, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that independent counsels did not interfere “unduly” or “impermissibly” with the powers of the executive branch. The sole dissent came from Scalia, who cautioned that a politically biased prosecutor could carry out “debilitating criminal investigations” for minor crimes. “Nothing is so politically effective,” he wrote, “as the ability to charge that one’s opponent and his associates are not merely wrongheaded, naive, ineffective, but, in all probability, ‘crooks.’ ” (Ultimately, prosecutors declined to charge Olson.)
For Reagan and his aides, the Supreme Court ruling was not an abstract concern. The year before, news had broken of what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. In an extraordinary series of crimes, the C.I.A. director William Casey and several White House aides sold sophisticated weaponry to Iran and funnelled the profits to anti-Communist rebels in Central America, in defiance of a law that specifically barred support for the group. All the while, Casey and the aides brazenly lied to Congress about their actions. When the scheme was uncovered, Reagan’s poll numbers sank, but he denied knowledge of the operation and avoided impeachment.
In televised hearings, the National Security Council aide Oliver North argued that Presidents and their aides should be able to do whatever they deem necessary to protect the country from threats. Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming, argued that North and his allies had done nothing improper, because foreign policy and national security should be controlled solely by the executive branch. But Democrats and a majority of Republicans said that Congress must be able to act as a check on a wayward President. At the hearings, Daniel Inouye, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, who headed the inquiry, warned that a “cabal” of officials who believed they had a “monopoly on truth” could lead to “autocracy.” Barr was unmoved. He later told an interviewer, “I think people in the Iran-Contra matter have been treated very unfairly.”
When George H. W. Bush ran for President in 1988, Barr, who was then thirty-eight, seized an opportunity to continue the mission of the Reagan years. He joined the campaign as an adviser, and, after Bush won, he was appointed to run the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the President and all federal agencies.
Barr immediately produced a memo, arguing that Congress was a menace to the Presidency. He urged Administration officials to be alert to legislative encroachment, and cited ten recent examples, from “Micromanagement of the Executive Branch” to “Attempts to Restrict the President’s Foreign Affairs Powers.” He wrote, “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved.” Barr began chairing meetings in which the general counsels of executive-branch departments drafted a strategy to work against Congress. He recalled in 2001 that the President supported the mission: “Bush felt that the powers of the Presidency had been severely eroded since Watergate and [by] the tactics of the Hill Democrats.” But Bush favored an incremental approach, saying, “I don’t want you stretching—I think the way to advance executive power is to wait and see, move gradually.”
In a series of decisions involving government actions overseas, Barr helped expand Presidential power. In 1989, Bush was in a standoff with Manuel Noriega, the strongman leader of Panama, and considered having him arrested, on charges that included drug trafficking and money laundering. The Justice Department had traditionally considered that the President lacked the power to order arrests on foreign soil. But, in June, Barr issued a legal opinion arguing that Bush had “inherent constitutional authority” to order the F.B.I. to take foreign antagonists into custody.
The following year, after the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein moved his forces into Kuwait, Bush asked at a White House meeting if he needed congressional approval to mount a counterinvasion. Barr, who by then had been promoted to Deputy Attorney General, said that the mandate to defend national security gave the President the power to go to war whenever he wanted—even to launch a preëmptive attack on Iraqi forces, if he believed that they were preparing to deploy chemical weapons against American troops.
But Barr feared that lawmakers would try to block such an action, and so he urged Bush to cover himself by obtaining Congress’s support. Even the other conservatives in the room were startled; Justice Department officials were expected to maintain scrupulous impartiality. According to Barr, Cheney, at that time the Secretary of Defense, reprimanded him: “You’re giving him political advice, not legal advice.” Barr recalled that he said, “I’m giving him both political and legal advice. They’re really sort of together when you get to this level.” In August, 1990, Bush invaded Kuwait, with congressional approval. The following year, he named Barr Attorney General.
Since Barr’s days at Horace Mann, he has felt that the transformations of American society that began in the sixties have worsened its social problems. For decades, he registered unflinching disdain for criminal-justice reform, support for religion, and sympathy for big business. In a 1995 symposium on violent crime, he argued that the root cause was not poverty but immorality. “Violent crime is caused not by physical factors, such as not enough food stamps in the stamp program, but ultimately by moral factors,” he said. “Spending more money on these material social programs is not going to have an impact on crime, and, if anything, it will exacerbate the problem.” Barr also dismissed the idea of wrongful convictions. “The notion that there are sympathetic people out there who become hapless victims of the criminal-justice system and are locked away in federal prison beyond the time they deserve is simply a myth,” he wrote. “The people who have been given mandatory minimums generally deserve them—richly.”
As Attorney General, Barr increased sentences for drug-related crimes and cracked down on illegal immigration. In 1992, rioting erupted in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four police officers who had been videotaped beating the motorist Rodney King. Barr deployed two thousand federal agents on military planes to stop the unrest. He later argued that civil-rights charges should have been brought—not just against the offending officers but also against the rioters on the streets of L.A. “We could have cleaned that place up,” he lamented in 2001. “Unfortunately, we just brought the federal case against the cops and never pursued the gangsters.”
During his tenure, Barr turned down multiple requests to name prosecutors to examine potential executive-branch abuses. “The public integrity section told me that I had received more requests for independent counsel in eighteen months than all my predecessors combined,” Barr recalled. “It was a joke.” In one case, Barr opposed the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Administration’s dealings with Iraq before the invasion of Kuwait. Even some conservatives objected; William Safire, the Times columnist, called him “cover-up general Barr.”
After Bush lost the 1992 Presidential election, to Bill Clinton, he blamed the defeat on Lawrence Walsh, the lead prosecutor in the Iran-Contra affair. Four days before the election, Walsh had filed a new criminal charge against former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and revealed an entry from Weinberger’s diary that cast doubt on Bush’s long-running claim that he opposed trading arms for hostages. Bush was furious, Barr later recalled: “He felt that that indictment had cost him the election.” On Christmas Eve, 1992, Bush pardoned four former officials whom Walsh had prosecuted, and two more who were awaiting trial—a decision that Barr supported. In a statement accompanying the pardons, Bush complained of “the criminalization of policy differences,” and wrote that criticisms of the President should be expressed in “the voting booth, not the courtroom.”
To Democrats, the pardons were outrageous; officials had defied Congress to carry out a dangerous and illegal scheme, which provided arms to an avowed enemy of the U.S. Barr dismissed those concerns and suggested that Walsh’s investigation had unfairly hobbled the Bush Presidency. “It was very difficult because of the constant pendency of the Iran-Contra case and Lawrence Walsh, who I thought was a—I don’t know what to say in polite company,” he recalled in 2001. “He was certainly a headhunter and had completely lost perspective.”
Three blocks from the White House, on K Street, is a storefront with signs in its windows advertising “solidarity” and “mercy and justice.” The building houses the Catholic Information Center, a bookstore and a chapel where federal workers and tourists can attend morning and evening services. On a recent weekday afternoon, a sign announced an upcoming debate between conservative writers, called “Nationalism: Vice or Virtue?” A skateboard with an image of the Virgin Mary hung not far away, in the hope of attracting a younger crowd.
Led by a member of the archconservative group Opus Dei, the center is a hub for Washington’s influential conservatives. Its rise began in 1998, with the arrival of a charismatic new director, the Reverend C. John McCloskey, a forty-four-year-old banker turned priest. Hard-charging and unabashedly political, McCloskey liked to say, “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic.” During the nineties, he helped convert a series of prominent conservatives to Catholicism, including the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is a vocal Trump backer. In 2003, McCloskey quietly left his post, and Opus Dei later paid a settlement of nearly a million dollars to a woman who said that he had sexually harassed her. But the center’s board of directors remains a nexus of politically connected Catholics. Pat Cipollone and Barr have both served on the board, as has Leonard Leo, the executive vice-president of the Federalist Society. Asked about Barr’s role, the center’s chief operating officer, Mitch Boersma, confirmed that he had served as a board member from 2014 to 2017 but said, “We don’t have anything to add.”
After Bill Clinton took office, in 1993, Barr stepped away from government work and continued promoting his version of an ideal society through various religious organizations. He served on the boards of groups whose charitable work is widely praised, such as the Knights of Columbus and the New York Archdiocese’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund. For years, Barr has paid the tuition of eighteen students a year at a parochial school in New York.
But Barr’s instinct for ideological combat did not wane. In 1995, he wrote an article for a journal called The Catholic Lawyer. Two years earlier, the F.B.I. had mounted a disastrous raid on a compound inhabited by a cult in Waco, Texas. In his article, Barr complained that journalists had made “subtle efforts” to liken the cult to the Church. “We live in an increasingly militant, secular age,” he wrote. “As part of this philosophy, we see a growing hostility toward religion, particularly Catholicism.” He argued that religious Americans were increasingly victimized: “It is no accident that the homosexual movement, at one or two percent of the population, gets treated with such solicitude, while the Catholic population, which is over a quarter of the country, is given the back of the hand.”
His position on executive power wavered over time, depending on which party controlled the White House. When Clinton was under investigation in the Whitewater affair, a Senate committee subpoenaed documents, and Clinton’s team claimed that they were protected by lawyer-client privilege. Barr called the rationale “preposterous,” and later complained that Clinton had diminished his office: “I’ve been upset that a lot of the prerogatives of the presidency have been sacrificed for the personal interests of this particular president.” When George W. Bush entered the White House, Barr resumed his arguments that the President should have “maximum power” in national security. In op-eds and in congressional hearings, he spoke in favor of military tribunals, the Patriot Act, and sweeping surveillance. In the Obama years, as Republicans in Congress launched a campaign to thwart the President’s initiatives, Barr largely went silent again.
In the private sector, Barr built a reputation as a pugnacious opponent of federal regulation. As the general counsel of G.T.E., one of the country’s largest telephone companies, he persuaded regulators to approve mergers that benefitted his employer while arguing against those which benefitted rivals. Around the office, he talked at times about such moral doctrines as natural law, but never expected secular colleagues to share his beliefs. Barr didn’t socialize much with co-workers; he commuted each week to New York from Washington, where he and his wife, Christine, raised three daughters amid a Catholic community centered on a tight circle of churches, schools, and social clubs. The girls went to a Catholic school in Bethesda, where Christine worked as a librarian. (Barr’s daughters later attended Catholic colleges, and all became lawyers.)
After years of government work, Barr began to grow rich. He helped lead G.T.E. when it merged with Bell Atlantic to form Verizon, the country’s largest telephone company. From 2001 to 2007, he was paid an average of $1.7 million a year in salary and bonuses, in addition to stock options, the use of a company jet, and a spending allowance. When Barr took an early retirement, in 2008, he received twenty-eight million dollars in deferred income and separation payments—a large enough sum that a watchdog group cited the payouts as an example of poor corporate governance. Barr had amassed a fortune that Forbes recently estimated at forty million dollars, and he made millions more serving on corporate boards, including those of Time Warner and Dominion Energy. He also joined Kirkland & Ellis, a Washington firm known for its leading conservative lawyers. And he and Christine built their house in McLean, a few miles from C.I.A. headquarters.
In July, 2012, Barr learned that his youngest daughter, Meg, had a recurrence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Meg, who was then twenty-seven years old, faced a roughly twenty-per-cent chance of survival. He stopped working and focussed on his daughter’s care. The family had Meg treated at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston, and Barr and his wife moved to be near her. After Meg underwent chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, Barr rented a house in the town of Scituate, outside Boston, so that Meg could be isolated from other patients and avoid infection. They read books, walked on the beach together, and talked about what Meg would do if she survived. “Those three months were the best and worst of times,” Meg told Fox News in 2019. “The hardest part of my illness was accepting the randomness of it, the fact that you can’t control the outcome. Both my father and I tend to be control freaks.”
Meg survived. But, Barr told Fox, “Meg’s illness changed our family. It changed me.” Friends of Barr’s said that he approached both his professional life and his personal life with a renewed zeal. Chuck Cooper, a litigator who worked with Barr in the Reagan Administration, told me, “I think he has an intense appreciation for life and our tenuous hold on it. And that to squander any of it is unforgivable.”
Barr was late to join the Trump revolution. In the nineties and the early two-thousands, he donated more than half a million dollars to Republican candidates, mostly such mainstream figures as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. (Barr even supported Jeff Flake, the Arizona senator whose occasional criticisms of Trump ended up turning constituents against him.) In 2016, Barr gave twenty-seven hundred dollars to Trump’s campaign—and about twenty times that amount to support Jeb Bush.
After Trump won, though, Barr demonstrated a convert’s enthusiasm, writing op-eds for the Washington Post in which he endorsed Trump’s controversial positions. When Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General, refused to carry out a ban on travellers from predominantly Muslim countries, Barr accused her of “obstruction,” and assailed news coverage of the situation. “The left, aided by an onslaught of tendentious media reporting, has engaged in a campaign of histrionics unjustified by the measured steps taken,” he wrote. In another article, Barr criticized Robert Mueller for hiring prosecutors who had donated to Democratic politicians—but did not disclose his own donations to Republicans.
In February, 2017, Trump appointed his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and quickly grew disenchanted. When Sessions recused himself from the Mueller investigation, Trump asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”—a reference to his former personal lawyer, who was a close aide to Senator McCarthy during the Red Scare of the fifties. According to Bob Woodward’s reporting, Trump lambasted Sessions as a “dumb southerner” and “mentally retarded.” (Trump has denied this.) That fall, Sessions ignored Trump’s demand to appoint an independent counsel to investigate a debunked theory about Hillary Clinton’s role in the sale of uranium to Russia. The Times contacted ten former Attorneys General for comment, and Barr was the only one to reply. “There is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation,” he said. Barr added that he saw more basis for an investigation in the uranium deal than in any supposed collusion between Trump and Russia. “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he wrote.
Barr has said that he wasn’t interested in the position of Attorney General. But in June, 2018, he sent an unsolicited, nineteen-page legal memo to Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, who was overseeing the Mueller investigation. He spent much of the letter elaborating an argument that a President’s Article II powers rendered him essentially incapable of obstructing justice. He acknowledged that such blatant acts as destroying evidence and encouraging perjury were impermissible. But, he wrote, “Mueller’s core premise—that the President acts ‘corruptly’ if he attempts to influence a proceeding in which his own conduct is being scrutinized—is untenable.” Benjamin Wittes and Mikhaila Fogel, of the blog Lawfare, described the memo as “bizarre.” Barr, without firsthand knowledge of the facts in the case, had devised a legal theory of obstruction, attributed it to Mueller, and then declared it “fatally misconceived.”
Barr had strong advocates. Cipollone, his former speechwriter and fellow board member at the Catholic Information Center, lobbied on his behalf. Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, added her support. After the midterm elections, Trump forced out Sessions and nominated Barr, calling him “my first choice since Day One.”
On January 15, 2019, Barr arrived on the Hill for confirmation hearings, accompanied by his wife and daughters. Many Democrats in Congress, particularly those who hadn’t studied Barr’s record, hoped that he would be an institutionalist who would curb Trump’s legal excesses. They also faced a stark political reality: they did not have the votes to block his nomination. Ignoring the advice of some aides, Democrats did not dwell on Barr’s statements regarding criminal justice, or on whether his religious beliefs might affect his views.
Most of the hearings focussed on how Barr would handle the release of the Mueller report. In his opening statement, he repeated a reassuring pledge that he had made at his confirmation hearings as Bush’s nominee: “The Attorney General must insure that the administration of justice—the enforcement of the law—is above and away from politics.” He testified that he believed that Mueller, a longtime associate whom he described as a “good friend,” should be allowed to complete his investigation. But he also signalled skepticism about the idea that Trump had colluded with Russia, and repeatedly expressed support for the President’s policies. Four weeks later, he was confirmed, in a largely party-line vote, as Trump’s second Attorney General.
On February 14, 2019, Barr took over a Justice Department plagued by dissension and low morale. Trump’s public attacks on Sessions and Mueller had unnerved staffers. And though career employees supported Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Mueller investigation, some staffers said that he was distant and seemed over his head in meetings. “When he got confused or distracted, which seemed pretty often, he would tell some story about a bank robbery in Mobile,” a former department official said. “He was a nice enough man, but I don’t think he had any idea what we did for a living.”
Current and former Justice Department officials told me that the main problem was not Sessions but Trump, whose Administration required them to defend contorted legal positions. Under Sessions, the department defended the travel ban, a prohibition on transgender people joining the military, a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, and a dismissal of claims that the President had violated the emoluments clause. Several career officials declined to put their names on legal memos. “Morale has been low since Trump came in,” Matthew Collette, a former senior official who worked for thirty years at the Justice Department, told me. “The incredibly controversial and difficult cases started and kept coming.”
When past Presidents resisted sending materials to Congress by claiming “executive privilege,” Justice Department lawyers tried to help resolve the disputes. Under Trump, that practice has stopped, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told me. As Brett Kavanaugh was going through confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, Congress requested documents describing his work in the George W. Bush Administration. The White House refused access to more than a hundred thousand pages of them. Blank sheets of paper arrived on Capitol Hill stamped “Constitutional privilege,” a category that members of Congress said they had never heard of before.
Rather than avoiding the partisanship of the Trump era, Barr’s actions have placed his department at its center. One divisive fight has been over immigration. In March, 2018, the Administration announced that it intended to add a citizenship question to the forthcoming national census—a measure that liberals said was designed to disadvantage Hispanics. The effort fuelled bitter division in the department. Collette said that lawyers were comfortable with implementing a new Administration’s policy priorities, but not with “twisting legal views to fit the personal views or needs of the President.”
Barr has steadfastly supported Trump’s crackdown on immigrants. He directed judges to deny some migrants the opportunity to post bail, and restricted migrants’ ability to claim asylum based on connections to family members who face threats of violence. The Justice Department is trying to reverse a recent court decision that helps protect people from fast-track deportations. It has also sued “sanctuary cities,” in California and other states, which offered to protect migrants fleeing the crackdown.
After months of fierce legal battles, the Supreme Court ruled against the Administration in its bid to add a citizenship question to the census. In a 5–4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that the “sole stated reason” for the change “seems to have been contrived.”
Trump responded to the defeat by issuing an executive order, giving the President the ability to collect the citizenship data by other means. Legal experts widely dismissed the order as a pointless fig leaf, but, in a Rose Garden ceremony, Barr declared it a triumph. Standing a few feet from Trump, he said, “Congratulations again, Mr. President, on taking this effective action.”
Barr showed no sign of tempering Trump’s instincts. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, told me, “I think he was nominated for his ability to protect Trump. His belief in executive power was his primary qualification.” In high-profile cases, Barr has repeatedly aided Trump politically. When Barr issued his summary of the Mueller report, he quoted part of a sentence saying that no conclusive proof of collusion had been found, but left out the rest, which suggested that Russia and the Trump campaign had worked at arm’s length toward similar goals. He mentioned that the report identified potential incidents of obstruction of justice, but did not enumerate or describe them. (There were ten, including Trump’s firing of the F.B.I. director James Comey, who had declined to promise him loyalty.)
Three days later, Mueller wrote Barr a letter, complaining that the summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his report and had created “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.” Mueller had prepared an introduction and executive summaries, and he urged Barr to release them. Barr declined, and took another three weeks to redact the full report, allowing Trump’s claim of “total exoneration” to dominate the news.
When Barr finally released the report, in April, he held a press conference before journalists had access to it, which prevented them from asking detailed questions about its contents. Barr repeated four times that no collusion had been found and argued that “the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his Presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fuelled by illegal leaks.” Four days later, congressional Democrats subpoenaed Don McGahn, the White House counsel, who had witnessed some of Trump’s potential acts of obstruction; the Justice Department issued a legal opinion that he was not required to testify.
Trump has often advanced a revisionist view of the 2016 election, claiming that Ukraine interfered and playing down Russia’s role. In his telling, the F.B.I.’s inquiry was a secret effort, endorsed by Barack Obama, to spy on his campaign. A government official, who asked not to be named, told me that, while Barr does not believe that the “deep state” is plotting to force Trump from power, he is convinced that there was something nefarious in the F.B.I.’s conduct of its investigation. Last April, Barr spoke about the matter before a Senate subcommittee. “Spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” he said. “I think spying did occur. The question is whether it was adequately predicated.”
By then, the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, had spent thirteen months on an investigation of the F.B.I.’s handling of the Trump-Russia probe. But Trump directed Barr to begin his own investigation, and also to look into the intelligence assessment that Russia aided his candidacy. Trump gave Barr a far-reaching power: to unilaterally declassify top-secret documents in order to review the work of the country’s intelligence agencies.
To conduct the probe, Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, who, during the Obama Administration, investigated the C.I.A.’s use of torture against suspected terrorists. Barr and Durham made trips to the U.K., Italy, and Australia, where they asked officials for evidence of misconduct by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, who has served on the Intelligence Committee since 2001, told me that Barr was ignoring Justice Department norms: “He is flying around the world trying to get evidence that would confirm these bizarre conspiracy theories and exonerate Russia.” Intelligence officials worried that the trips would make longtime allies hesitant to share information with the U.S., for fear of being drawn into a partisan fight.
David Laufman, a former senior counter-intelligence official at the Justice Department who helped investigate Russian interference, said that the probe has also sent a clear message to U.S. officials: challenge Trump at your peril. “We’re into Crazy Town,” Laufman told me. The investigation, he said, was “evocative of regimes in history that conduct purges for perceived disloyalty.”
Barr’s convictions about the place of faith in government are widely shared in the Administration. The day of his Notre Dame speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address called “Being a Christian Leader,” in Tennessee. “I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work,” Pompeo said. “I’m proud to say that President Trump has let our State Department do that. Indeed, he has demanded that we do.” Pompeo is an evangelical Christian; many of his peers in Trump’s inner circle are conservative Catholics, who have achieved a degree of influence rivalling that of evangelicals in the George W. Bush Administration. Along with Barr and Cipollone, there are the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney; the White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway; the National Economic Council director, Larry Kudlow; and the former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Leonard Leo, of the C.I.C. and the Federalist Society, has guided Trump in his selection of judges.
An Administration official acknowledged that religious leaders “are acutely aware of Trump’s shortcomings” but also recognize his value to their cause. “Name a political leader who has done more for conservatives,” the official said. Trump has reshaped the country’s legal system, appointing two Supreme Court Justices and a hundred and sixty-two other judges, most of whom can be counted on to rule with conservative principles in mind. Barr’s Justice Department has supported efforts to restrict access to abortion, and has aided attempts to secure taxpayer funding for Christian schools. Barr has also helped Trump restore the use of the federal death penalty, which Presidents of both parties have frozen for sixteen years.
Barr likes to describe Trump as the heir to Ronald Reagan. But in some ways his Administration, with its fixation on enemies and its willingness to bend laws for political gain, is more reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s. In September, Honda, Ford, Volkswagen, and BMW agreed with California to observe emissions standards tougher than those endorsed by the White House. After the Administration derided the move as a “P.R. stunt,” the Justice Department opened an antitrust investigation of the automakers. Barr’s work on the President’s behalf extends to keeping his tax returns secret. Last year, Trump’s personal lawyers argued that his financial records should not be given to New York City prosecutors, who were investigating whether he had made an illegal payment to the adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford. The Justice Department filed an amicus brief, arguing that turning over the records would “impose substantial burdens on the President’s time, attention, and discharge of his constitutional duties.” Stephen Gillers, the legal-ethics professor, argued that Barr was failing to challenge Trump when he should. “We don’t have an Attorney General now,” he said. “We have an additional lawyer for the President.”
Last September, an explosive news story involving Barr strained the distinction between these roles. An unnamed whistle-blower had filed a complaint, based on a phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. In the call, Trump urged Zelensky, who was dependent on U.S. military aid, to investigate Biden for links to corrupt behavior. He suggested that he talk to his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani—and also to Barr.
Barr denied any role in the matter and said that he had never spoken with Zelensky. Meanwhile, the Justice Department halted the whistle-blower’s complaint. First, the Office of Legal Counsel ruled that the complaint was not an “urgent concern” and therefore did not need to be handed over to congressional oversight committees. Then the department’s Criminal Division dismissed the whistle-blower’s allegation that the President had broken a federal law forbidding candidates to solicit support from foreigners. The department reasoned that a publicly announced Ukrainian investigation into Biden’s conduct cannot be a campaign contribution, because there is no way to precisely enumerate its value.
On November 15th, Marie Yovanovitch, the former Ambassador to Ukraine, testified before the House about being forced out of her position, by what she described as a “smear campaign.” As she spoke, Trump simultaneously assailed her on Twitter, an experience that she described as “very intimidating.” That same day, Barr gave a fiery speech to the Federalist Society. “In waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of resistance against this Administration, it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and undermining the rule of law,” he said. He portrayed the President as a victim of “encroachment” by the other branches of government. “There is a knee-jerk tendency to see the legislative and judicial branches as the good guys, protecting the people from a rapacious would-be autocrat,” Barr said. “This prejudice is wrongheaded and atavistic.”
In December, Michael Horowitz released a report on his investigation of the F.B.I., which Barr and his allies hoped would support their argument. For months, Trump and Fox News commentators had predicted that Horowitz’s report would find clear political bias. Instead, it concluded that Trump’s allegations of an F.B.I. “coup” were false.
The report—based on more than a hundred and seventy interviews and a million-plus pages of documents—did find misconduct, most of it involving applications to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court. During the campaign, low-level F.B.I. officials had asked for permission to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump foreign-policy adviser. While doing so, a lawyer falsified an e-mail to make it appear that Page was not coöperating with the C.I.A., when the opposite was true. Agents also withheld concerns about the reliability of allegations against Trump compiled by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
Horowitz’s work showed that the government’s secretive surveillance process requires significant reform. But the report found that the opening of the probe was legally justified, and that the officials’ failures did not induce leaders to commit improper acts. “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions,” Horowitz wrote. (A separate investigation into Peter Strzok, a senior counter-intelligence agent who had sent scornful text messages about Trump, came to a similar conclusion.) James Baker, the former general counsel of the F.B.I., told me that the Bureau began the investigation before receiving a copy of the Steele dossier and before the Page e-mail was altered. At the time, Democratic Party communications stolen by Russia were circulating online, and Trump had publicly called for Russia to steal and release Hillary Clinton’s e-mails; several of his campaign officials had been in contact with Russian officials and with suspected intelligence operatives. “We have an obligation to protect the United States from Russia,” Baker said. “Presented with the same facts, I would open the investigation again.”
Barr released a response to the report, disputing Horowitz’s conclusions. Despite the core finding that the investigation was initiated properly, Barr argued that the report “makes clear that the F.B.I. launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions.” Durham, the federal prosecutor appointed to carry out a separate investigation, suggested that he and Barr had gathered evidence that contradicted Horowitz. “We advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the F.B.I. case was opened,” he said. This statement violated a Justice Department practice of not commenting on investigations until they are finished.
Trump went further, suggesting that Horowitz was part of a cabal formed in the previous Administration. “Remember that I.G. Horowitz was appointed by Obama,” he tweeted. “There was tremendous bias and guilt exposed, so obvious, but Horowitz couldn’t get himself to say it. Big credibility loss. Obama knew everything!”
Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, immediately admitted the Bureau’s errors and announced forty reforms designed to prevent improper surveillance. But, in a television interview, he pushed back about other false claims. When asked about Trump’s calls for an investigation into Ukraine’s meddling in the election, Wray replied, “We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered.” Wray also urged Americans to vet their sources of information. “There’s all kinds of people saying all kinds of things out there,” he said. “And I think part of us being well protected against malign foreign influence is to build together an American public that’s resilient, that has appropriate media literacy, and that takes its information with a grain of salt.”
After Wray defended the F.B.I., Trump attacked him as well. “I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me,” he tweeted. “With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!”
Wray is still in his job, but others have faced significant consequences. One of these is Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, a moderate Republican who publicly questioned some of Trump’s claims. Last summer, after months of pressure, Coats resigned, and Trump suggested replacing him with John Ratcliffe, a congressman from Texas who has trafficked in conspiracy theories. (After evidence suggested that Ratcliffe may have exaggerated his résumé, the White House withdrew the nomination; the position remains vacant.) Trump also revoked the security clearance of the former C.I.A. director John Brennan, who has criticized him. Agents recognized the implications; many intelligence officials, after years of low-paying government work, rely on their security clearances to obtain private-sector jobs when they retire. More recently, the President denounced the whistle-blower in the Ukraine case, who has subsequently received many death threats. When the threats spike, armed agents drive him to and from work.
In dozens of interviews, current and former law-enforcement and intelligence officials said that three years of Trump’s Twitter attacks, conspiracy theories, and high-profile firings have left their leaders wary of speaking in public, testifying before Congress, or talking to reporters. They know that they will be asked about Trump’s false claims. If they respond accurately, they risk being fired for contradicting the President.
The country’s intelligence agencies continue to produce private assessments that counter Trump’s specious assertions. They affirm that Russia, not Ukraine, interfered in the 2016 election and predict that it is likely to meddle again in 2020, according to members of the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees. The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. have also assessed that white nationalists and ISIS members represent continued threats, issues that Trump has downplayed. But agency directors believe that they can best protect their institutions by keeping such concerns private. “Survival is victory,” the government official told me. “If you are able to go out on your own terms, or go out last, it’s a victory for the institution.”
If Barr’s inquiry results in criminal charges, it would be a radical departure from past practice. When Durham investigated C.I.A. officers for torture, he pressed no criminal charges. Previous investigations into intelligence failures that cost American lives—such as missing warning signs before the 9/11 attacks or wrongly concluding that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—carried no possibility of criminal sanction. James Clapper, who was the director of National Intelligence in 2016, cautioned that the election assessment is a work of analysis. “If a prosecuting attorney is investigating analysts for their intelligence judgments, that’s not good,” Clapper said. James Baker worried that Trump’s intimidation of investigators would have consequences at the F.B.I. “It could reduce the willingness to give frank assessments or to pursue controversial cases,” he said, adding, “I’m nervous about the institution.”
In private gatherings, current and former F.B.I. agents and Justice Department officials register exhaustion at Trump’s attacks on the F.B.I. Recent retirees told me that they were surprised by how little they missed working at the Bureau.
Some agents have embraced Wray’s admonition to do their work and ignore the political brawl around them. After two and a half years on the job, Wray, a low-key former prosecutor and corporate lawyer, has inspired loyalty for handling a difficult situation gracefully. The Bureau, like the country, is deeply divided; even some agents who find Trump personally distasteful say that they support his policies. Comey was a popular director, but agents complain that his calls for people to vote against Trump play into conspiracy theories about the Bureau. The clearest sentiment is disdain for the political class. Last winter, during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the Bureau’s thirteen thousand agents and twenty thousand support staffers struggled to pay their bills. After employees walked into supervisors’ offices in tears, agents set up impromptu food banks to help colleagues. Trump caused the shutdown by demanding that Congress fund his border wall with Mexico, but many agents argued that politicians on both sides were responsible. “They didn’t do their job,” Tom O’Connor, a retired F.B.I. agent, told me.
The political combat of the Trump era was breeding apathy and disgust. F.B.I. and Justice Department officials said that if Trump was reëlected there would be an exodus of employees. Some retired agents fear that the institution will not survive another four years.
Stephen Gillers suggested that Trump’s attacks were part of a drive for increased power. “One way that Trump seeks to maximize control is minimizing the disclosure of information and undermining the credibility of information,” he said. “The Congress needs information to do its job, and the President has frozen it out—especially in the impeachment investigation. Another check is the media, and the President’s use of the term ‘fake news’ can cause people to lose faith in the media. What remains are the courts, which are slow and cumbersome.”
Donald Ayer, the former Bush Administration Deputy Attorney General, warned that Barr’s interpretations of executive power could be validated. “The ultimate question is what happens when these reach the Supreme Court, which has two Trump appointees,” he said. “There is a real danger that he succeeds.” Some legal analysts believe that Barr is overplaying his hand. Benjamin Wittes, of Lawfare, predicted that the Supreme Court would reject Barr’s extreme positions, creating precedents that ultimately reduce the power of the Presidency. “The idea that the President gets to assert executive privilege over material that has already been made public is laughable,” Wittes told me. “I think they are very likely to lose a lot of this.”
Chuck Cooper, the conservative litigator, disagreed. He said that Barr’s tenure represented the achievement of the legal project launched during the Reagan Administration. “He is building and extending on a foundation,” Cooper said. “It was popularized and very robustly advanced by the Meese Justice Department.” Last October, in the Oval Office, Trump awarded Meese the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Barr attended, and Meese thanked him for carrying on his legacy: “You’ve risen to continue the string of great Attorneys General in this country.”
As Barr insists on expanded Presidential power, Republican voters are starting to agree. According to the Pew Center, forty-three per cent of Republicans believe that “presidents could operate more effectively if they did not have to worry so much about Congress and the courts.” That number has increased from fourteen per cent when Trump took office. A House G.O.P. report about Ukraine endorsed his singular authority; slightly misquoting John Marshall, it argued that Trump was, “constitutionally, the ‘nation’s sole organ of foreign affairs,’ ” and thus had unlimited latitude in his dealings with Ukraine.
Ayer fears that Barr has combined a Reagan-era drive to dismantle government with a Trump-era drive to politicize it. As the White House succeeds in holding off congressional attempts at removing Trump from office, Barr is winning his long war on the power of the legislative branch. In the 2020 campaign, Trump will argue that he alone can protect the country from the dangers posed by the left, immigrants, and other enemies. And Barr’s vision of Presidential power will be the Party’s mainstream position. “Barr sought out the opportunity to be Donald Trump’s Attorney General,” Ayer said. “This, I believe, was his opportunity—the opportunity of a lifetime—to make major progress on advancing his vision of an all-powerful Chief Executive.”