WASHINGTON – Not long after he undermined President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread electoral fraud in early December, Attorney General William P. Barr’s time at the head of the Justice Department came to an end. The President and his allies attacked Mr. Barr publicly and privately, making it clear that he should withdraw his assessment or downgrade the last few weeks of government and possibly dismiss in a degrading manner.
According to those familiar with his endeavors, Mr. Barr had to work on an exit plan for the face. He and his allies began communicating with the White House to assess his chances of a friendly farewell, and he spent a weekend writing one letter that would herald his departure while preserving his relationship with the president.
Efforts succeeded Mr. Barr to go largely on his terms. Mr. Trump highly praised Mr. Barr when he announced his exit, and the Attorney General returned the favor, obscuring the fact that he had all but been evicted.
The orchestrated farewell was a reflection of how Mr. Barr ran a Justice Department during his tenure for a president who viewed it as hostile to him. Mr Barr’s time was largely marked by the perception that he was breaking the department’s independence in order to advance the president’s political and personal interests, mainly undermining his own investigations into Russia and the Trump campaign and dealing with campaign issues including addressing fears of electoral fraud.
But Mr Barr also showed flashes of autonomy at the end of his tenure. His reversal of electoral fraud broke off by the president. He said he saw no need for a special lawyer to investigate President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter, when Mr. Trump asked for one. And Mr Barr even admitted that some of his suspicions about the Obama administration’s examination of Russian electoral influence were false.
Historians will debate whether the 70-year-old Barr tried to maintain his reputation. Already a polarizing figure, he had received renewed criticism in the past few weeks for easing restrictions on election-related investigations when Mr Trump heightened his complaints about election irregularities and had the ministry review the Russia investigation in Biden administration continued.
Mr Barr’s allies say he simply followed his instincts, bolstered by his maximalist view of executive power, and was not concerned that he was serving Mr Trump’s personal agenda.
In any event, an investigation into Mr. Barr’s tenure, based on interviews with allies, critics, current and former law enforcement officers, and academics, shows that no matter what Mr. Barr says or does, Mr. Trump will ultimately define his legacy as a lawyer in general.
“Bill Barr will be inextricably linked with Donald Trump,” said Nancy Baker, a political scientist who studies attorney general and interviewed Mr. Barr for an oral history project at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. While government critics blamed Mr. Barr for refuting Mr. Trump’s false election claims, they ultimately said, “He will always be Trump’s type.”
Mr Barr, who left the job last week, said at his last press conference that he accepted the position because he felt he could help the department at a difficult time.
“I knew I was signing up for a difficult assignment in this department. Like I said, there have been difficult times, ”said Barr, who refused to answer questions about the article. “I don’t regret coming in because I think it’s always an honor to serve the nation.”
When Mr Barr, who had served as attorney general during the first Bush administration, returned to the office early last year, some Trump critics viewed his experience as a potential scrutiny of the president. But his own records indicated that Mr. Barr saw the president’s power as broad, and Mr. Trump provided the opportunity to restore what Mr. Barr saw as executive power that had been lost in the post-Watergate era.
“As a member of the Cabinet, the Attorney General supported the administration and many of its priorities. He was wrongly criticized for that, ”said Brian Rabbitt, his former chief of staff and outgoing chief of the Department of Justice’s crime department. “But you don’t take a job like his to resist. You take on the job of helping the administration do their best for the country.”
Enthusiastic about issues such as expanding religious freedom and supporting Native American reservations and tribal law enforcement agencies, former colleagues said, Mr. Barr has largely continued his fight against drugs, violent crime and what he believes to be politically motivated law enforcement.
This work was dwarfed by the Russia Inquiry, which both he and Mr Trump believed were an abuse of power by the F.B.I.
“He had a vigilant stance on the Russia investigation – ‘I’ll fix this on my own,’ said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School who studies the history and ethics of the legal profession.
Following his confirmation in February 2019, Mr. Barr embarked on a single-minded mission to uncover any investigative misconduct.
Mr Barr began by reshaping the public’s perception of the most politically charged investigation of a generation in the best possible light for Mr Trump. He went on to define it as the political stick used to “sabotage” Mr Trump’s presidency even after the Justice Department’s Inspector General decided otherwise. “Prosecutors can sometimes turn into headhunters who are busy trying to achieve their goal,” Barr said said this fall. He said In his final days in office, investigators for the Special Representative, Robert S. Mueller III, were too biased to suspect F.B.I. Wrongdoing.
Going beyond the talk, Mr Barr tapped John H. Durham, the United States attorney in Connecticut, for a criminal investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation. Mr Barr spoke about Mr Durham’s work in the months leading up to the election and went against Justice Department norms to avoid publicly discussing ongoing criminal investigations as Mr Trump promoted the investigation as safe to lead a conspiracy against him to prove.
“He had a blind spot in Russia,” Ms. Baker said of Mr. Barr. “Blind to the fact that he acted politically in handling the Russia investigation, even if he acted in his belief out of the belief that his actions were compatible with the rule of law.”
After the election, amid a storm of complaints from Mr Trump’s allies that Mr Durham had not revealed any information that could have helped the president, Mr Barr played down expectations that he would expose criminal acts. He told a Wall Street Journal Opinion columnist that by focusing solely on charges, the political class apologizes for other contemptuous behaviors.
And although in the same interview he expressed his suspicion about the examination of the Russian electoral influence by C.I.A. In 2016, he also confirmed that Mr Durham was still reviewing the intelligence services’ 2017 assessment of the interference in the Russian elections.
Inside the Justice Department, the turning point came with Mr. Barr’s interventions in two high profile cases emerging from the Russia investigation, those of Mr. Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr. and his former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn. Some prosecutors withdrew from the cases. Some left the department completely. A typically discreet workforce demanded Mr. Barr’s resignation, accusing him of “putting the department into a Shield for the protection of the presidentAnd a tool for Mr. Trump to solve political problems.
Mr. Barr denied these allegations and publicly reprimanded Mr. Trump for commenting on the Stone case. Former advisors said Mr Barr conveyed the message to both Mr Trump and the federal prosecutor that he is acting based on his beliefs, not his policies.
But Mr Barr’s interventions in ways that benefited Mr Trump went beyond the Special Envoy’s investigation. The Justice Department investigated Mr Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that resulted in his impeachment and quickly found that he had not committed a campaign-funding crime long before the president’s sweeping efforts to pressure Kiev became a focus were moved.
The department also took complaints about books written by Trump opponents. A criminal investigation has been launched into the disgraced case of former National Security Advisor John R. Bolton to determine whether he illegally disclosed classified information.
To be a successful attorney general “is not just about doing the right thing, it is about maintaining the legitimacy of the institution,” said Ms. Roiphe. “While he was honest about these beliefs, he addressed them in a way that was only respected by his own political supporters.”
Some Justice Department officials believed Mr. Barr privately sharpened the president’s belief that his attorney general was his political fixer and used that capital, along with Mr. Trump, to protect the department from setback as it prosecuted cases that the Trade negotiations with China disrupted and, to protect the FBI, director Christopher A. Wray was dismissed for the president’s hostility towards the office.
According to former officials, Mr. Barr held an unusually small inner circle of aides and relied on them, not the department heads, for advice.
Mr Barr appeared to despise contributions from other roles in the department, particularly career staff, as unnecessary noise that slowed his quick deliberation process, former officials said.
Mr. Barr made his low opinion clear in a speech earlier this year, saying that no successful organizations have deferred decisions made by low-level staff as “sacrosanct” or “whatever those subordinates want to do”.
However, earlier this year he appeared blind to a number of mistakes, largely due to his leadership role in the federal response to this year’s nationwide protests against racial injustices. Mr Barr came under fire for ordering federal officials to evacuate a park near the White House in June, just before Mr Trump’s widely criticized photo was posted outside a church. He frustrated some in the White House and also contradicted Mr. Trump’s statement that he would take shelter in a bunker during the protests.
And later that month, Mr. Trump almost immediately distanced himself from Mr. Barr’s dismissal from the Manhattan chief attorney.
In his final weeks, Mr Barr began to see Mr Trump’s agenda, which he supported, as separate from the president himself and his personal shortcomings, such as his refusal to accept the election results, staff said.
Mr. Barr accepted Mr. Biden’s victory and said that no fraud he had seen would undo it. He had already resisted pressure from Mr Trump late in the campaign to persecute the Democrats.
He also kept silent about the potentially explosive news that Hunter Biden was under criminal investigation. Disclosing that, as staff said, a future presidency of Biden could have undermined, an act Mr. Barr saw as a potential echo of the investigation that had been launched against Mr. Trump four years earlier.