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Critics Doubt Barr Can Restore Stability To The Justice Department


When Attorney General William Barr was appointed to the job, he was greeted with a measure of relief on both sides of the aisle. Remember - the Justice Department was in the middle of Washington's partisan battle over the Mueller investigation, and there was hope that Barr could restore stability at the department. Almost a year later, Barr certainly has the president's approval.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Credible guy, tough guy and somebody with a tremendous heart also. But he is strong. He can take it. Attorney General William Barr - where is William Barr?

GREENE: But Democrats have accused Barr of turning the DOJ into a political weapon against the president's opponents. So how did we get here? Here's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: President Trump was never shy about his frustrations with his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions. He castigated Sessions time and again on Twitter and in TV interviews. One of the president's complaints was that Sessions didn't open an investigation into what the president alleged was wrongdoing by the FBI and Democrats during the 2016 election. Trump's claims include allegations that Obama-era officials spied on his campaign. Here he is on Fox News in early 2018.


TRUMP: A lot of bad things happened on the other side - not on this side, but on the other side.

JEANINE PIRRO: And you know what's interesting...

TRUMP: And somebody should look into it because what they did is really fraudulent.

LUCAS: That somebody is Jeff Sessions. After a rocky 21 months in the job, Sessions resigned under pressure in November of 2018. The pick to replace him was William Barr, a prominent Republican lawyer and former attorney general under George H.W. Bush. Republicans were delighted by the choice and Barr's conservative legal pedigree and experience.

Even Democrats acknowledged that Barr was qualified for the job, but they had concerns about how he would handle special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, which at the time was still in full swing. Their concerns stemmed, at least in part, from a memo Barr had written criticizing aspects of Mueller's probe. At his confirmation hearing in January, Barr told lawmakers he would be evenhanded and independent.


WILLIAM BARR: President Trump has sought no assurances, promises or commitments from me of any kind, either expressed or implied, and I have not given him any, other than that I would run the department with professionalism and integrity.

LUCAS: Barr also made this commitment to the committee's Republican chairman, Lindsey Graham.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you promise me, as attorney general, if you get this job, to look in to see what happened in 2016?

BARR: Yes, Mr. Chairman.

LUCAS: What happened in 2016, in Chairman Graham's book, was a potentially improper investigation of the Trump campaign. A month after that hearing, Barr was confirmed by the Senate. His relationship with Democrats quickly soured.

It began with a four-page letter Barr wrote, summarizing Mueller's final report. The letter said Mueller's team did not find that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government. It also said the special counsel did not draw a conclusion one way or another whether the President obstructed justice. Barr, however, did - clearing the president of wrongdoing. President Trump, speaking before the press, eagerly embraced Barr's letter and its conclusions.


TRUMP: The Mueller report was great. It could not have been better. It said no obstruction, no collusion. It could not have been better.

LUCAS: Democrats accused Barr of trying to hammer in stone the no collusion, no obstruction narrative, before anyone else had a chance to even see Mueller's findings. As the public waited for a redacted version of the report, Barr told lawmakers that, as promised, he was going to take a look at the origins of the Russia investigation.


BARR: As I said in my confirmation hearing, I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016.

LUCAS: Trump and his Republican allies welcomed the news. But for Democrats and some former Justice Department veterans, Barr's decision seemed odd. The reason? The Russia investigation was already being looked at. The Justice Department's independent inspector general and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee were already diving into those issues, among others. Meanwhile, the president continued to accuse American intelligence agencies of wrongdoing.


TRUMP: The fact is they were spying on my campaign.

But they smear you. They spy on you.

Look - yeah, people spying on my campaign is very simple.

LUCAS: On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen pressed Barr on what his Russia review was about.


JEANNE SHAHEEN: So you're not suggesting now that spying occurred?

BARR: I don't - well, I guess you could - I think there's a - spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur.

LUCAS: Democrats jumped on Barr's use of the word spying. It was far from the carefully crafted legal term of court-approved surveillance that law enforcement officials typically use on the Hill. And it also appeared to echo the president's own language.

A month later, Barr appointed a veteran prosecutor, John Durham, to lead the Russia review. Even for skeptics, Durham was viewed as a good choice. He's a veteran prosecutor with a reputation for being tight-lipped and independent, and he's handled politically sensitive investigations before. Once appointed, Durham got to work and has quietly operated under the radar. The attorney general, in contrast, has remained very much in the news.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: New scrutiny on Attorney General William Barr - why he...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: We're also learning that Attorney General William Barr met with...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: William Barr himself, the attorney general, has...

LUCAS: The attorney general's name came up several times in President Trump's now famous phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart. In a rough transcript of that call, Trump urges Ukraine's president to investigate Democrats, and he also tells him to get in touch about it with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and with William Barr. When the Justice Department decided not to open an investigation into the president's actions, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summed up Democrats' reaction this way.


NANCY PELOSI: I do think the attorney general has gone rogue; he has for a long time now.

LUCAS: For its part, the Justice Department says the attorney general has not discussed Ukraine with Trump, nor has Barr been in contact with Ukraine or Giuliani. But he has taken a hands-on approach to the Durham inquiry. Barr has asked the president to make phone calls to foreign leaders to help open doors for Durham, and Barr even traveled with Durham to Rome for meetings with Italian intelligence officials.

Barr's critics accuse him of using the Durham investigation as a political cudgel. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and a friend of Barr's, says not so.

JONATHAN TURLEY: I mean, this is not legal alchemy. He isn't - Bill Barr can't make gold from lead. So if John Durham finds no criminality, that will be a finding that Bill Barr will respect.

LUCAS: Late last month, news broke that Durham's review had been upgraded to a formal criminal investigation. It's unclear what prompted the change or what alleged wrongdoing is under scrutiny. But the news came after days of damaging testimony in the House impeachment inquiry, fueling fresh criticism from Democrats that Barr was weaponizing the Justice Department. Again, Jonathan Turley.

TURLEY: There seems to be an effort to undermine any conclusions of John Durham before they're reached. And you know, this is becoming a "Hamlet"-like moment, where the Democrats doth protest too much.

LUCAS: Turley says Americans have questions that only investigations like Mueller's and Durham's can answer, and it would be unwise, he says, to count on politicians to frame the conclusions.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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