Bill Barr, Unbound

How President Trump and his attorney general use each other
Attorney General William P. Barr in September.

One evening in May 1992, an obscure Catholic lay society in Arlington, Va., presented its annual award to a 41-year-old political insider wise to Washington’s sub rosa realms. His name: William Pelham Barr. It was a coup for the Brent Society. Despite its low profile, the group had landed a star honoree and featured speaker who had become attorney general of the United States of America just six months earlier after having served a stint as the acting holder of that post.

As he was accepting the award, the smoke had barely cleared in Los Angeles where violent demonstrations after the acquittal of three police officers in the beating of a Black motorist, Rodney King, prompted the deployment of thousands of federal troops. The unrest, coming just months before a presidential election, had thrust America deeper into a painful reckoning with evolving attitudes about race during a tumultuous time. Simultaneously, a stubborn public health crisis filled hospital wards, with HIV/AIDS the leading cause of death for men between the ages of 22 and 44. The culture wars, particularly the fight over abortion, were in full flower.

Barr now finds himself again presiding as attorney general in an election year, this time with the nation convulsed by the coronavirus pandemic and still beset by uncomfortable questions about race. But back then, he’d puzzled out why Los Angeles was burning. There had been a “withering” of religious faith since the 1960s, Barr said, according to the text of his 1992 remarks. “Moral relativism and the pursuit of pleasure,” he opined, “were the order of the day.” The eruption in Los Angeles, he reasoned, could in part be attributed to “the general moral decline we see all about us in society.” It was not just the demonstrations that triggered Barr’s notions of an American descent into sinfulness. “Morally bad actions,” he said, “have bad practical consequences for society: HIV, venereal disease is the price we pay, among many others, for sexual license.”

Nearly three decades later, the moralizing attorney general is incongruously knit with a profane, philandering president who has boasted that his celebrity status gave him license to grab women by the “p---y.” Yet Barr, who has railed in recent speeches against sexual “licentiousness,” views the president in a more forgiving light. “I don’t consider him amoral,” Barr told us matter-of-factly during an early September interview in his snug, elegantly appointed Department of Justice office, where pulled blinds let in the sparest of light. “I think all human beings have flaws. Everybody. And if we were to insist on perfection in our leaders, you wouldn’t really have leaders.”

Barr now stands as one of the most consequential figures in the administration of Donald Trump, insulating the president from detractors, bringing to life Trump’s law-and-order exhortations about public protest, joining him in sowing doubt about the integrity of the upcoming election. Trump has turned out to be the ideal vessel for Barr’s decades-long pursuit of a potent “unitary executive” with few checks on his power and broad authority to swat away congressional demands. Theirs is a political marriage of perfect symmetry: a president who wants to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants — and believes he can; an attorney general dedicated to endowing Oval Office occupants with expansive power. In Barr’s thinking, the president is not the head of the executive branch of government, which is a collection of dozens of agencies and sub-departments. Instead, as Barr sees it, the president and the president alone is the executive branch. In word and deed, Barr is trying to make sure that it is Trump who will cement his vision of a nearly omnipotent presidency. He’s told the Chicago Tribune that a Trump reelection loss in November would plunge the country “irrevocably” down a “socialist path.” He’s bolstered the president’s racially insensitive rhetoric by saying pandemic, public-health lockdowns are “the greatest intrusion on civil liberties” other than “slavery.” And he’s tried to muscle his prosecutors into using an ancient law to charge demonstrators with sedition.

Barr once served as attorney general for a president, George H.W. Bush, with a more modest view of executive power — and of himself. Teaming with Trump, a self-centered, self-aggrandizing child of privilege, offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Few modern American political figures could have been expected to embrace Barr’s vision of a single human being embodying an entire branch of government with such rapaciousness as Trump. “I have the right to do whatever I want,” Trump told a group of young conservatives in Washington five months after Barr took office in 2019.

Barr and President Trump step off Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews after Trump’s visit to Kenosha, Wis., in September. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

It is hard to know who benefits more from the relationship — who plays the music and who dances to the tune. Both use each other.

Barr’s maneuverings have been pilloried as so baldly questionable and advantageous to Trump that his prosecutors have resigned in protest from at least three high-profile cases. Most recently, a prosecutor quit the Justice Department entirely amid disagreements over the pace of a Barr-commissioned investigation about the Obama administration’s investigation of Russian connections to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Lumbering and generously jowled with a head of thick salt-and-pepper hair, the 70-year-old Barr has become Trump’s legal avatar, an explainer and softener of the president’s outrageous remarks (a “deep state” operation is underway to oust him). An enabler of his most audacious plans (sending police in riot gear and military personnel to clear a peaceful protest at the park across from the White House so the president could have a photo op in front of a church). An amplifier of his wild and most fact-challenged claims (mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud, and foreign governments could flood the nation with counterfeit ballots).

Little of the sly wit Barr displays in person emerges as he defends the president in television appearances and other interviews that, as the election approaches, have turned him into the president’s most effective campaign surrogate. Instead he often evinces the mien of the grouchy uncle. “Donald Trump is as much a tool of Bill Barr as Bill Barr is a tool of Donald Trump,” says Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general and Republican stalwart who served with Barr at the Department of Justice in the 1980s and has become one of his most prominent critics. “I think Barr sees Trump as an extraordinary opportunity to advance his agenda, which he’s had for many years, of making the president an autocrat.”

Ayer’s view is shared by many, but there are those who want to assure the country that there’s really nothing amiss. Barr’s views about a unitary executive are “not exactly far out,” says Michael Mukasey, a conservative who served as attorney general under President George W. Bush. “I don’t think that for the Justice Department to take that view and pursue it in particular cases is unreasonable.”

Barr says his Catholic faith gives him “a solid grounding and a balance. It’s one of the reasons I really don’t care what people think.”

Barr came into office in early 2019 enrobed in the hope, even among many Democrats, that he would serve as a guardrail for a reckless president. Now Barr’s critics, including hundreds of former Justice Department officials, want him to resign in shame. “I don’t really care what the public thinks — or especially the media and, you know, the political class,” Barr told us. His Catholic faith, he continued, gives him “a solid grounding and a balance. It’s one of the reasons I really don’t care what people think.”

Before the interview, Barr asked whether he should wear a mask when he strolled into the conference room next to his office. Above his head, massive murals titled “Justice Triumphant” and “Justice Defeated” loomed at the top of the curved ceiling, a tableau that represents the polar opposite views of his rocky tenure as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He answered the question about the mask himself, cracking that he “thought you’d want to see my lips.”

Barr’s shrinking cadre of defenders have found fewer receptive ears for their argument that he is misunderstood, and for their laments that history will judge him harshly as a partisan hack. “The attorney general has been politically crucified by his partisan foes and the media,” J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge who worked alongside Barr in the George H.W. Bush administration, says in a rare interview. The first of Barr’s supposed sins, Luttig says, is the most elemental and insurmountable: “He is President Trump’s attorney general.”

Barr in September.

A photograph of George Patton hung in the office of Malcolm Wilkey, a respected conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit who served as a World War II intelligence officer in the famed general’s Third Army. The young attorney asking to be Wilkey’s clerk held scant hope of getting the job. But as soon as Bill Barr, a military history buff, mentioned the Third Army and displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the war, he was in.

Wilkey’s periodic lunches with his clerks sometimes devolved into the judge and Barr positioning salt and pepper shakers on the table, diagraming battle formations. Barr could charm his colleagues with a ready laugh and a sense of humor that David Hiller, a fellow clerk and future publisher of the Los Angeles Times, says landed somewhere between “wry and devilish.”

Barr was a tangle of improbabilities: a deeply conservative Catholic whose father, a Columbia University educator and headmaster of elite private prep schools, was born Jewish but enthusiastically embraced Catholicism. In our interview, Barr interrupted a question to emphasize that his father’s family members were “secular Jews. They were atheists.”

Barr fashions himself an outlier — when he was growing up and now. In elementary school, he was the Upper West Side son who studied alongside less fortunate Black, Latino and Irish kids whose parents weren’t Columbia educators like his. At Horace Mann, the elite New York prep school he attended, “everyone,” he says, “had been to everyone’s bar mitzvah. They all went to temple dances.” He notes, “I think there were like three Christians in my class.”

The pattern continued while he was attending Columbia amid the counterculture heyday and sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s — a period he views as a demarcation point in America’s moral collapse. In Barr’s freshman year, an instructor announced a course would focus on “why organized religion is no longer tenable.” Barr recalls being one of only two students to raise their hands when the instructor asked how many students “believe in organized religion.” Still, he got an A-plus when he wrote a counterargument.

In Washington, the product of highbrow schools became a bit more of a scrapper. In a sea of Harvard-, Yale- and Georgetown-pedigreed lawyers, he worked on his law degree at George Washington University night school, which lacked the same cachet. He’d moved to Washington just two days after marrying the woman who became his wife of more than four decades, Christine Moynihan Barr, a school librarian who is now retired. The couple have three adult children, including a daughter, Mary Daly, a lawyer who worked at the Justice Department before Barr took office and now is in the Treasury Department.

His route to the prestigious Wilkey clerkship wound through a six-year stint at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked in the Office of Legislative Counsel and the Intelligence Directorate. While there, his monitoring of congressional investigations of the intelligence community made him wary of CIA, FBI and National Security Agency excesses, according to friends and aides speaking anonymously to relate Barr’s private musings. “He believes that the FBI and the national security state is powerful. It can be a force for good — and it can turn into the German Stasi,” one aide says, referring to the notorious East German security agency.

Barr’s cautious view of the intelligence community is more nuanced than that of Trump. But their shared doubts about the FBI’s and CIA’s investigation in 2016 have been the underpinning of Barr’s pre-election Russia probe. He receives frequent updates on the investigation — sometimes daily — which is being conducted by John Durham, a U.S. attorney from Connecticut.

“I think Barr sees Trump as an extraordinary opportunity to advance his agenda, which he’s had for many years, of making the president an autocrat,” says Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general who served with Barr at the Department of Justice in the 1980s.

Behind the scenes, frictions have emerged between Durham and Barr over the attorney general’s pushing his handpicked choice to work faster to publicly issue his findings, according to two people familiar with the tensions. Barr made a marked shift in his tone and terminology during our interview, veering from his previous statements that Durham and he would likely release a “report” in the summer. Instead Barr used more vague language, saying only that there would be a “public accounting” and refusing to discuss the timing. Three days after the interview, the Justice Department was rocked by the resignation of a top Durham lieutenant, prosecutor Nora Dannehy — a highly public indication of troubled internal discussions about releasing findings so close to the presidential election.

Barr’s initial vector to the heights of the American criminal justice system would eventually point through the world of party politics, where he became a master speed-climber of interior staircases. He zoomed in just three years from a spot on the team vetting vice-presidential candidates for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign to the post of attorney general — an astonishing rise for a lawyer a decade-and-a-half out of law school.

At his first stop in Bush’s administration, as director of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Barr wrote an opinion that cleared the way, along with another legal analysis, to allow Bush to capture Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and bring him to the United States. Barr resisted congressional requests for the opinion, providing a summary that omitted some of his reasoning, including the assertion that the president could violate the United Nations charter. “It was like observing an athlete making his signature move,” says Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale Law School professor who is a former top official in the State Department and Justice Department in Democratic administrations.

Koh and others saw echoes of that intransigence and obfuscation in spring of last year during the defining moment of Barr’s tenure as Trump’s attorney general when he released a summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign more than three weeks before publicly disclosing the full 448-page report.

Barr at the White House on the day Trump signed an executive order on policing reforms in June. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Barr’s distillation of Mueller’s highly detailed but ultimately wishy-washy report dutifully noted deep in the text of the four-page summary that the investigators had not exonerated the president. But the headline-generating lines of Barr’s summary dealt with the special counsel’s decision not to reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice. To Trump’s great benefit Barr left out the damning details of 10 instances of possible obstruction by Trump. In addition, Barr left out the key point that Mueller found multiple contacts between Trump campaign officials and people linked to the Russian government, and that the campaign looked to benefit from Kremlin interference.

Barr’s preemptive handling of the Mueller report allowed Trump to dominate the initial news cycle and cement a narrative, even though he was clearly overstating his attorney general’s summary. “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION,” Trump tweeted. Ever since, Barr and his closest allies have privately puzzled that he hasn’t gotten credit for eventually releasing the report, which contains scads of damaging material about Trump. Barr supporter Luttig told us, “The fact is that the attorney general could not have more perfectly, accurately and faithfully described the special counsel’s conclusions.”

Some viewed Barr’s handling of the report as a shocking departure for a respected attorney. But it was more an echo of Barr’s long-held — though selective — disdain for independent counsels. Ken Starr, who served as the U.S. solicitor general the first time Barr was attorney general, remembers extended chats with Barr decrying a Supreme Court decision that upheld the independent counsel act in a case stemming from a U.S. House of Representatives investigation. “The hellions of an independent counsel demonstrated to us the profound flaws of the [independent counsel] statute,” Starr says, chuckling a bit at the irony of his distaste for independent counsels, given that he was the most prominent independent counsel before Mueller. “That united us in the conclusion that you had to really watch out for Congress and you especially had to watch out for the House of Representatives.” (Barr later looked favorably on Starr’s work as independent counsel, saying the law required his appointment.)

Barr’s tinkerings at the Office of Legal Counsel have been resurrected in defense of Trump. In May 2019, Trump banked on the current OLC — which relied in part on a 30-year-old opinion Barr had written — to refuse a congressional request to review the president’s tax returns.

Still, there were moments in his first tenure as attorney general when Barr showed the restraint that so many hoped he’d demonstrate as Trump’s attorney general. In the final stretch of Bush’s term, he blocked a plan to have the president unilaterally index capital gains to inflation, which would have energized wealthy Republicans during his foundering reelection campaign. “Here is something that the White House counsel very badly wanted that would have been politically beneficial to the president,” says David Rivkin, a prominent conservative lawyer who wrote the memo in support of the idea while he was in the White House counsel’s office. “What does it tell you about Bill Barr? It does not seem like the action of a yes man.”

Barr during the announcement that he would be the next attorney general under President George H.W. Bush in 1991. (Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)

Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in the 1992 election shoved the still-youthful attorney general through Washington’s revolving door, where he eventually settled in for a long run as general counsel of the telecommunications company now called Verizon.

He got rich. He was a foreigner to Washington’s social scene whose aversion to being a joiner meant he didn’t become a member of elite private clubs or even enlist in the Federalist Society, the highly influential conservative group so closely aligned with his philosophy. His one big foray into socializing was the annual “ceilidh” parties — named for the traditional Scottish and Irish music-centric get-togethers — that he’d throw at fancy hotels. At other times, he’d play bagpipes at gatherings of fellow enthusiasts. (Asked how the first sentences of his obituary should read, he says with a loud chuckle there should be only one word: “Piper.”)

With copious time on his hands, he wrote and sold a screenplay about Capt. Ernest Evans, a World War II Naval commander renowned for his heroism fighting a much larger Japanese force. But Barr was out of the action in the halls of Washington power. He knew it. He missed it. His friend, Jonathan Turley — a George Washington University law school professor — would sometimes send him draft copies of briefs. Once, Turley recalls, Barr called him at 2 in the morning from a corporate jet to point out a missing preposition in a footnote on page 20.

In 1995, Barr wrote an article for the Catholic Lawyer journal in which he framed a “historic struggle” between “secularism” and “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system.” They’re themes he has echoed in his current role, calling Black Lives Matter activists “Bolsheviks” in a Fox News interview, and saying “the left wants power because that is essentially their state of grace in their secular religion.” (On the other hand, he says “saving Black lives” through programs such as Operation Legend, which dispatches federal law enforcement officers to cities where violence is surging, is perhaps his greatest accomplishment.)

Barr often argues — citing Catholic thinkers and the Founding Fathers — that the demise of the Judeo-Christian system could imperil the existence of the American government. “For the Republic to work,” he wrote in the journal article, “people must be guided by ... commonly shared moral values.”

It’s a view he still holds, telling us that “over the long run, the fewer and fewer people who have religion, the less stable government becomes.” During the covid-19 pandemic, Barr has marshaled his Justice Department to support the right of churches to hold services. In his own words, he has “jawboned” governors to treat churches the same as any other public gatherings while imposing restrictions to limit the spread of the killer virus.

In his journal article, he again took on homosexuality. Barr looked askance at “the effort to apply District of Columbia law to compel Georgetown University to treat homosexual activist groups like any other student group. This kind of law dissolves any form of moral consensus in society,” he wrote.

Gay and lesbian organizations expressed concern when Barr was nominated to be Trump’s attorney general, citing his past comments. Barr’s Justice Department recently filed a Supreme Court brief arguing that Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, which receives taxpayer funding, should be allowed to refuse to place adoptive and foster children with same-sex couples.

Barr’s longtime friend, former Time Warner chief counsel Paul Cappuccio, who is in a same-sex marriage and raising three children, says: “There is no intolerance in Bill Barr other than, perhaps, intolerance of stupidity.” Cappuccio had worried about discussing his relationship and marriage with some of his conservative friends and mentors — but not Barr. He recalls Barr coming over to him at a reception not long after he got married in 2013: “I have to meet this guy. I’ve got to make sure he’s the right fit for ‘The Pooch,’ ” Barr said, using Cappuccio’s childhood nickname.

Barr’s preemptive handling of the Mueller report allowed Trump to dominate the initial news cycle and cement a narrative.

After stepping down from Verizon in 2008 — the year he turned 58 — he entered a long, restless semiretirement, in which he did some consulting and was counsel in the Washington office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. He also served on the board of the Catholic Information Center, a downtown gathering spot and place of worship that has featured priests from the ultraconservative Opus Dei wing of Catholicism. During his first term as attorney general, Barr had hired as a speechwriter John Paul Wauck, who later became an Opus Dei priest and has kept in periodic touch with him. So many people have assumed that Barr is a member of Opus Dei that the secretive organization issued a statement saying he is not.

In those years, he would periodically meet Turley for long lunches at a favorite Italian restaurant, Assaggi Osteria in McLean, Va., where he lives. They’d linger long after the plates were cleared, gnawing over large and minuscule points in law. Afterward, it wasn’t uncommon for Barr to send Turley lengthy memos — just because. Barr wanted someone to listen to him.

In June 2018, Barr sent an unsolicited 19-page memo to the Justice Department, the White House counsel and others. In it he, argued that, even though he was “in the dark about many facts,” he wanted to share his conclusion that the investigation by his longtime friend, special counsel Robert Mueller, seemed to be a “misbegotten effort to ‘disempower’ ” Trump. The president had “illimitable” powers to hire and fire his then FBI director, James Comey, who’d investigated Russian interference, Barr wrote. Once again, he’d pushed his objective of building a muscular presidency. But this time, there was a president in office who was more than eager to go along.

While then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump loyalist, was beginning to have frictions with the president, Barr — who is a friend of Sessions’s — offered private advice on managing the relationship with a difficult Oval Office occupant. Within months of Sessions’s ouster, Barr’s name was being floated as attorney general to replace the much-panned interim choice, Matthew Whitaker. Unlike some other Trump Cabinet choices, Barr was not a political supporter of the president’s. He had significant doubts about Trump’s suitability for office, a friend says on condition of anonymity.

Yet when Trump called, Barr accepted the job, reasoning that he could reshape the Justice Department to his liking. For the first time in a quarter century, Barr was really relevant again.

Barr became Trump's attorney general in 2019.

In April 2019, emails and text messages flooded into Brian Rabbitt’s phone as Barr’s then-chief of staff sat just behind the attorney general as he testified before a Senate committee. “Twitter is going crazy,” one text read. Social media was ablaze because Barr had uttered a single word: “spying.” Rabbitt stiffened when he heard it. He knew trouble was coming.

Barr’s unequivocal remark about the intelligence community’s Russian interference investigation gave a lofty imprimatur to the president’s long-standing unsubstantiated claims that the Obama administration had spied on his election effort. It suggested to some that Barr had prejudged the Obama administration’s actions while the attorney general’s investigation into the early stages of the probe was still in its infancy. Before the hearing ended, with his staff in a state of high anxiety, Barr shifted into damage-control mode, telling senators that he’d only meant to say “surveillance.” He was “concerned” and “looking into it.”

On the ride back to the Justice Department, his senior staff tried to explain the fuss, a tempest Barr told them was “ridiculous.” “Barr couldn’t believe it was such a big deal,” says a staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate a private conversation. “He really didn’t care what the reaction was.”

In the high-wire months to come, Barr’s inner circle stood by him and supported his decisions — even as some prosecutors who directly handled investigations and trials resigned in protest over his decisions. They’d bonded over conference tables and cocktails. Barr, who isn’t a big drinker, keeps bottles of blended and single malt whiskeys in his office for occasional impromptu, end-of-the-day, decompression get-togethers with his staff.

Once, during a stopover in Dublin on an overseas trip, Barr joined staffers at a divey pub, where he knew the musician and was immediately recognized. Barr had memorized the words to the Irish ballads and belted them out. But even some of his closest staff didn’t know about his philanthropic efforts. He now pays tuition for 18 underprivileged kids to attend Catholic schools in New York City from kindergarten through 12th grade as part of a church program he’s participated in for many years.

In the weeks after his bombshell appearance at the Senate committee hearing, Barr would toss aside his measured tone, flatly telling Fox News and the Wall Street Journal that spying had taken place. Barr thought the controversy was so “absurd” that he deliberately chose to use the word “spying” in defiance of media talking heads, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

Barr poses for photos with guests at the White House Summit on Human Trafficking in January. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The attorney general’s comments — no longer hedging — were only a hint of what many perceived as a Barr-Trump, Trump-Barr echo chamber, with the two men repeating each other’s themes, sometimes months apart, sometimes days apart. Trump has frequently said Democrats are trying to stage a “coup.” Barr didn’t dispute that suggestion when asked about it on Fox News, but used softer language, saying that an “organized effort” may be afoot to remove Trump from office. Critics say their claims about mail-in voting undermine confidence in the upcoming election.

The interplay between Trump and Barr on the key election issues has resurrected long-standing allegations that the attorney general is following the president’s lead on prosecutorial decisions. Barr’s choice to intervene and recommend a lower sentence than his courtroom prosecutors in the case of Roger Stone — the political trickster and Trump friend convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice — came shortly after the president tweeted that the prosecutors’ recommendation was unfair.

All four Stone prosecutors resigned in protest, and more than 1,000 former Justice Department officials signed a letter calling on Barr to step down. After the prosecutors learned of Barr’s maneuver — not from the attorney general, but from media reports — some of them ended up at the Carving Room, a hip restaurant and bar near Washington’s Judiciary Square, where the place was filling up with angry DOJ officials. When one of the prosecutors walked in, the room erupted in applause.

Another prosecutor resigned from a case when Barr sought to throw out the charges against Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. The decision, which is being held up by a federal judge, prompted 2,000 former Justice officials to call for Barr’s resignation. Barr also has gone on the offensive against Trump enemies, trying to block publication of former national security adviser John Bolton’s unflattering book about the president, and taking an unusual step by having the Justice Department replace Trump’s personal attorneys in a defamation suit filed by E. Jean Carroll, who says she was raped by the president in the mid-1990s.

Those episodes demonstrated a call-and-response pattern: Trump complaining, Barr doing. Still, Barr is forever protesting that his actions are not dictated by the president. “The president’s constant comments undermined what we were trying to do,” says a senior staffer who spoke anonymously to describe closed-door conversations with Barr. “This was a constant frustration.”

The same phenomenon appeared in the summer of 2019 when California cut an emissions standards deal tougher than Trump’s plan. The Justice Department made no attempt to block the arrangement until Trump tweeted against it. The next day Justice announced an antitrust investigation of the deal. Career staff questioned the legal and factual basis for the investigation; Barr says he had nothing to do with the decision.

And a week after Trump tweeted about alleged bias against conservatives by Google this past summer, the Justice Department opened an antitrust investigation of the search giant, prompting more internal complaints. “I have no sympathy for that,” Barr says about the complaints. “I feel that the antitrust division has been 20 years behind the times, and one of the reasons we have these very large companies is because they have essentially fallen asleep at the switch. So it’s time for them to put some elbow grease into this and get things resolved.”

Amid the rampant criticisms, Barr has said that Stone’s prosecution was “righteous” but the sentencing recommendation was “excessive,” a view shared by the sentencing judge. Trump later undercut his attorney general, commuting Stone’s sentence and sparing him from serving any time in prison. Barr’s move on Bolton, he told us, stemmed from his assertion, which Bolton disputes, that the former national security adviser hadn’t gotten proper pre-publication approvals. Barr says he also disapproved of Bolton writing about officials still in office. And he has framed the decision to get involved in the Carroll case as routine because Trump’s comments disputing her rape claims were made within “the scope” of his work as president.

Barr’s actions — whether politically intended or not — have lately aided Trump’s promotion of himself as a law-and-order president with a miles-wide fiat to rule. Barr has marshaled federal law enforcement to tamp down protests in the aftermath of the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody. At times, Barr has served as a kind of translator for Trump. When the president, without evidence, accused Obama of committing treason, Barr turned apologist, telling CNN in early September that “ ‘treason’ is a legal term. I think he’s using it colloquially. To commit treason, you actually have to have a state of war with a foreign enemy, but I think he feels that they were involved in an injustice, and if he feels that, he can say it.”

Stuart Gerson, a conservative former head of the Justice Department’s civil division under George H.W. Bush, sees subtle gamesmanship at play. “Trump is not intelligent or incisive, but Bill Barr is both. So in this situation, Trump is the tail and Barr is the dog,” Gerson says. “Trump is the canvas on which Barr can paint his picture.” He’s always there, wherever Barr turns: Trump. Inescapable, a figure superimposed in everything Barr sketches. Or is it a trick of the dimming light?

During our interview, Barr sat back comfortably on the burgundy sofa in his office, at home in the realm he has occupied at the beginning of his 40s and 70s. Asked to assess his latest turn as a public servant, a sly smile crossed his face. “I’d give myself high grades,” he said. “But since we all have foibles, I’m not sure it’s an A-plus.” The piper, pleased with the sound of it, chuckled.

Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Post’s Style section. Tom Hamburger is an investigative reporter on the national desk.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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