The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

William Barr shifts from defending Trump’s actions to defending his own

Attorney General William P. Barr appears before a House Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 9, 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
6 min

It is fitting that William P. Barr should twice have held the title “attorney general.”

He was a loyal foot soldier for the presidents he served, particularly Donald Trump — a general in the sense of leading his forces in compliance with the commander in chief. And he is very much an attorney, skilled at presenting an argument directed at a particular outcome, if not always an argument that is centered on the available evidence.

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You will recall that, after serving as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Barr secured the same position in 2019 after sending the administration a lengthy letter dismissing the idea that Trump could be prosecuted for obstructing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Soon after Barr was confirmed by the Senate, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III announced that his probe into that interference would be wrapping up.

Before the report from Mueller’s inquiry was made public, Barr offered a four-page summary in which he cleared Trump of having colluded with Russia and rejected any possible prosecution of Trump for obstructing Mueller’s efforts.

Barr had in the past offered up a misleading summary of a decision, and this time continued with that pattern. The release of the redacted Mueller report revealed a number of ways in which Barr had sanitized or inaccurately condensed Mueller’s work. That included not just Barr’s letter but a news conference Barr held immediately before publication of the report in which he reinforced the conclusion that he hoped America would take away from the evidence it was about to see. Even at the time, Barr’s eagerness to exonerate Trump was clear, though Mueller would later put a fine point on it.

A few months after the Mueller probe ended, Trump faced impeachment over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of Joe Biden, his expected (and eventual) opponent in 2020. Barr again rose to Trump’s defense, mocking those who saw Congress as “protecting the people from a rapacious, would-be autocrat.” Trump administration officials asked the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that was at the center of the impeachment, but the department quickly decided not to.

What Barr wanted to investigate instead was the Russia probe: What triggered it and why was it biased against Trump? He appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the investigation, giving him both a long leash and constant companionship as Durham embarked on the task.

This was complicated when the Justice Department inspector general, an independent actor not beholden to the president, released a report establishing that the probe of Trump’s campaign was properly predicated and derived from a number of contacts between people on Trump’s team and Russian actors (including two campaign advisers and his campaign chairman).

Barr, for once trailing the news, quickly released a statement in which he declared that “the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions.” Durham released a statement, too, stating that he could “not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.” His probe was broader than the inspector general’s, so the suggestion was that he’d already sniffed out something else.

He hadn’t. As the months passed, it became clear that Durham didn’t have the goods to undermine the launch of the Russia probe. He obtained indictments against a couple of people, both of whom were cleared after jury trials. He did secure one plea agreement, but that derived from the inspector general’s investigation. Durham was successful at generating filings that could be picked over by conservative media to stir up conspiracy theories, but none that could survive outside of that bubble.

Last week, the New York Times published an exegesis of Durham’s probe, revealing how closely Barr was involved with the effort and how far the probe ranged even as it turned up nothing dramatic.

The Times reporters “found that the main thrust of the Durham inquiry was marked by some of the very same flaws — including a strained justification for opening it and its role in fueling partisan conspiracy theories that would never be charged in court — that Trump allies claim characterized the Russia investigation,” they wrote.

After a speech in Sacramento this week, the Los Angeles Times asked Barr about the New York Times report.

“The idea that there was a thin basis for doing it doesn’t hold water,” Barr insisted. He added that “one of the duties of the attorney general is to protect against the abuse of criminal and intelligence powers, that they’re not abused to impinge on political activity, so I felt it was my duty to find out what happened there.”

It’s worth noting here that Durham was appointed in May 2019, a month after Mueller’s report was released. By that point, the evidentiary links between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors were well-documented, not to mention the abundance of evidence of Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the election. Yes, Trump baselessly insisted that the whole thing was corrupt, but beyond sating Trump’s fury, it’s not clear why Barr felt such a probe was necessary. Particularly since the inspector general had announced his own probe more than a year before.

In Barr’s response we see the attorney, if not the ever-loyal general. He is the one now facing questions and he’s offering testimony in his own defense. He’d broken publicly with Trump in the wake of the 2020 election, even calling out his former boss’s approach to claims of election fraud. Now his client is himself.

Durham is expected to release a final report on his investigation, one that Barr told the Los Angeles Times would reveal “the whole genesis of [the Russia probe] and how it all occurred.”

“What’s wrong with that?” he added. “You review something, you get the facts.”

And, if you are Barr, you do your best to ensure that the facts presented publicly are aligned with the understanding you want to leave. After all, in the phrase “attorney general,” “attorney” comes first.