WASHINGTON ― A few months ago, William Barr was a well-respected former top federal law enforcement official, semi-retired from a white-shoe law firm after a lucrative career in corporate litigation. This week, 76 days after the Senate confirmed him as the United States’ 85th attorney general, the man that many political observers previously viewed as a Justice Department institutionalist is facing calls for resignation from Democrats who see him as little more than President Donald Trump’s cover-up man.
Weeks after writing a misleading summary of the findings of Robert Mueller’s special counsel report and giving a Trump-friendly press conference on the investigation ahead of the report’s public release, Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to address questions about his handling of the Mueller probe examining the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr, who served as attorney general during the first Bush administration at the height of “tough on crime” politics, told senators in prepared remarks that he believed it “is vitally important for the Department of Justice to stand apart from the political process and not to become an adjunct of it.”
Democrats weren’t buying it. They pressed Barr on Wednesday about a newly revealed letter from Mueller that indicated the special counsel thought Barr’s initial summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the special counsel’s work. A number of Democratic senators signed a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general on Tuesday asking for an investigation into a four-page letter Barr sent to Congress. And at the Senate hearing on Wednesday, several senators accused him of ethical improprieties and obfuscating the substance of the report.
“The American people know that you are no different from Rudy Giuliani or Kellyanne Conway or any of the other people who sacrificed their once-decent reputation for the grifter and liar who sits in the Oval Office,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), one of four senators who called on Barr to resign.
Barr’s responses were often combative. He claimed that he had to reach a prosecutorial decision on whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice to release the Mueller report, which Barr at one point referred to as his “baby.” While the president never sat for an interview with Mueller’s team, Barr claimed Trump “fully cooperated” with the investigation. Barr defended his use of the term “spying” to refer to court-authorized surveillance of Trump associates during the 2016 campaign. He hesitated when asked whether campaigns should contact the FBI if a foreign adversary offered dirt on political opponents. He refused to provide notes on his conversation with Mueller about Barr’s four-page summary, and called Mueller’s letter “snitty.”
Then, to close out the day, Barr bailed on a House Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday morning because he objected to being questioned by a staff lawyer for an extended period.
“People just keep wanting to believe that there are pillars of the Republican establishment who are too smart and too sophisticated and have too much integrity to compromise for Donald Trump. We keep being shown over and over that that’s just not true in most cases.”
Matthew Miller, who headed the Justice Department’s public affairs office under former Attorney General Eric Holder, told HuffPost he thinks Barr has lived in a “cocoon of Fox News” and conservative legal circles in the Trump era and says his trajectory matches that of the Republican Party under Trump.
“My theory now about what happened to Bill Barr is that his change over the past 25 years has tracked the change the entire Republican Party has undergone,” Miller said. “I really think he believes this investigation never should have started to begin with. I think he believes some of the worst conspiracy theories about people inside the FBI trying to take down the president.”
At his Mueller report press conference last month, Barr echoed Trump’s favorite “no collusion” talking point and suggested that Trump’s feelings could explain his behavior, saying the president was was ”frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.” Barr said Trump was facing an “unprecedented situation” and knocked the media for “relentless speculation” about Trump’s personal culpability.
“People want to believe there are still conservative lawyers who will follow the law without respect to partisanship,” Miller said. “People just keep wanting to believe that there are pillars of the Republican establishment who are too smart and too sophisticated and have too much integrity to compromise for Donald Trump. We keep being shown over and over that that’s just not true in most cases.”
Chris Truax, a legal adviser for the group Republicans for the Rule of Law, told HuffPost it was clear Barr was wearing “multiple hats and responding to different imperatives” in his role as attorney general. Speaking ahead of Barr’s testimony, Truax labeled the attorney general’s press conference behavior “improper, as opposed to unethical.” He credited Barr with eventually making the Mueller report public, but said he shouldn’t have been acting as an attorney for the president.
“What he did in defending Trump, I think, was simply wrong. He treated Trump like he was his defense lawyer,” Truax said. “I don’t think, as the attorney general, that he should be trying to spin this in favor of Donald Trump.”
Truax said Trump’s disparagement of the FBI, which caused Republican trust in the bureau to plummet and affected federal trials across the country, was “utterly outrageous” and said the long-term impact of his attacks would be one of the blackest marks on his presidency. He said he wishes fellow Republicans would “first and foremost” be concerned that the Russians interfered in the election and make immediate plans to keep it from happening again instead of “massaging President Trump’s ego and pretending this didn’t happen.”
Barr was the type of conservative you might imagine a more traditional Republican president naming to the post. Democrats were concerned that he’d written an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department that laid out a very narrow legal view of obstruction of justice, sure. But he got the benefit of the doubt in a lot of quarters, and every Republican senator (along with three Democrats) voted to confirm his nomination in February. (Some of the Democrats have now expressed regret about their vote for Barr.)
“The evidence was sort of staring us in the face that he got picked to land the plane for the president, and he did,” Miller said.
Former FBI congressional liaison Greg Brower, who was previously a Republican state legislator and served as Nevada’s top federal prosecutor during the George W. Bush administration, told HuffPost that a lot of people put their faith in Barr despite his “peculiar” and “strange” memo on obstruction of justice.
“Fast-forward a few months, and it seems like most of Washington is not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and it’s a very bad position for the AG and for the department to be in,” Brower said.
“At least half of Washington thinks DOJ is an arm of the White House now. Whether that’s accurate or not, just the fact that half of Washington believes that is not good,” Brower said.
“He didn’t have to write the March 24 letter. He didn’t have to do the press conference the way he did it,” Brower said. “He could have just been very, very close to the vest and let the report speak for itself.”