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A Look At Attorney General William Barr's Time In Office

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When Bill Barr arrived at the Justice Department early last year, many people there breathed a sigh of relief. After all, he had been an attorney general before. People viewed him as an institutionalist who could protect the Justice Department from a chaotic president. Barr promised as much in his confirmation hearing.

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BILL 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.

SHAPIRO: Instead, Barr's tenure has shaken the department like nothing since Watergate. Just this week, he loosened restrictions on certain election fraud investigations, seemingly backing the president's groundless claims of widespread election tampering. We're going to take a step back now and look at the attorney general's time in office with someone who has followed his career for a long time, NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Start by telling us what Barr was like before he got to the Justice Department last year and why people expected him to be a very different kind of leader there.

JOHNSON: Bill Barr has always been a conservative Republican, but in the early 1990s, he won praise for how he managed the Justice Department under the first President Bush. He steered the Justice Department through a bad prison riot in Alabama. He focused on gun violence at a time when violent crime was higher than it is today. Those are all pretty foundational projects for an attorney general, though Barr did advise President Bush to pardon a bunch of people who were involved in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, including the defense secretary. That was controversial since there were questions about whether President Bush came clean about all of his involvement in the scandal. Now, all these years later, we're here watching for pardons that President Trump might dole out on his way out the door.

SHAPIRO: Now, let's remember that one reason Trump fired his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was that Sessions would not look out for Trump's personal legal interests. Like, Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. In contrast, how would you describe the relationship between President Trump and Bill Barr?

JOHNSON: It's been pretty close. The president has been dishing out compliments to Barr, calling him my attorney general. There are good reasons for that. People on the team investigating Russian election interference think the attorney general misled the public about their findings to help the president. Here's Barr at a press conference last year.

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BARR: As the special counsel report makes clear, the Russian government sought to interfere in our election process. But thanks to the special counsel's thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign.

JOHNSON: Now, Ari, after we got the report and read it, we realized that's not exactly what it said. There was evidence of coordination between Russia and people in the Trump campaign, and there was lots of evidence the president may have obstructed justice by trying to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and get the White House counsel to lie about it.

SHAPIRO: And another key moment in Barr's tenure came this summer when people around the country protested for racial justice after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. Federal law enforcement used force to clear peaceful protesters from outside the White House so President Trump could take a photo with a Bible in front of a church. Tell us about Barr's role in that and how he responded more broadly to the racial justice protests.

JOHNSON: Now, Bill Barr says he's not the one who gave that order to disperse the largely peaceful crowd in D.C. at Lafayette Square with chemical agents. Barr says the crowd was, in fact, not peaceful. But he did play a major role in coordinating the law enforcement effort on the ground that day in June. And he made some statements that seemed to be in conflict with the facts, like this one.

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BARR: There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president going over to the church.

SHAPIRO: All right, Carrie. You've talked about a couple moments that Barr had the president's back, we should say. There have also been times Barr's pushed back on President Trump, like when Trump was tweeting about specific cases. Barr said this to ABC News.

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BARR: To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity.

SHAPIRO: So how do you square a moment like that with Barr's other actions that we've been talking about?

JOHNSON: Barr did say at least a couple of times that he wished Trump would stop tweeting, that the tweets made it harder for Barr to do his job. And many of those tweets came about cases involving people close to the president. Here I'm thinking of Roger Stone, his longtime political adviser; Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. Now we know the Justice Department has taken steps in those cases that are unusual, to say the least. It's trying to drop the case against Flynn. It recommended a lighter sentence for Stone, who later got clemency from the president. Those moves actually led prosecutors to quit the cases. That's not something that happens at the Justice Department very often.

SHAPIRO: Right. And we've spoken on this program to a prosecutor who departed publicly, criticizing Barr as he left, saying he was weaponizing law enforcement on behalf of the president. That former prosecutor's name is Philip Halpern. Here's what he said.

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PHILIP HALPERN: Donald Trump has made it crystal clear that there's simply no place in his administration for anyone who places loyal service to their country over blind obedience to him. And that's troubling to me because these are the actions of a dictator and not a patriot. And unfortunately, it's become all too clear that Bill Barr has chosen typically to play the lapdog and follow this president's lead.

SHAPIRO: So, Carrie, how is the attorney general responding to this really extraordinary wave of criticism from within his own rank and file?

JOHNSON: Barr has given really no ground and has responded sometimes in a pretty thin-skinned way. Some of that emotion broke into the public this year when Barr gave a speech to Hillsdale College, a conservative school. He said too many prosecutors at Justice are headhunters going after individual targets rather than seeking a fair result. And then he said lower-level prosecutors needed more supervision.

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BARR: Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency.

JOHNSON: Basically comparing his employees to preschool kids. Ari, you can imagine how well that went over.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And that brings us to the election. Even before votes were cast, the attorney general was echoing the president's unproven claims about fraud. Here's what he told Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition.

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BARR: There's so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed. I think it would be very bad. But one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting.

STEVE INSKEEP: Did you have evidence to raise that specific concern?

BARR: No, it's obvious.

SHAPIRO: How unusual is it for the attorney general to weigh in on elections?

JOHNSON: Very unusual. Normally, Justice becomes a ghost town in the month before an election. They don't say or do anything there that is remotely controversial out of extreme caution. But this week, a lawyer who ran the election crimes branch stepped down from his post. He said Barr upended norms that have been in place for 40 years, that prosecutors would not investigate voting irregularities until after elections have been certified.

Now, Barr sent a memo to U.S. attorneys this week that would give them the power to act now when President Trump is refusing to concede and before those certifications. Experts have pointed out there are a lot of caveats in the Barr memo, no evidence of any widespread fraud. Still, it's another example of how far this attorney general has been willing to go to support the president.

SHAPIRO: Where do people think Barr will go after Trump leaves office?

JOHNSON: You know, legal groups and professors at his own alma mater have called for ethics investigations into Barr this year. His reputation has taken a hit. But as he reminded us in his confirmation hearing, he is old enough to not have to work again when his time at Justice ends. And Barr told an interviewer this year that history is written by the winners. That may be why he's trying so hard to help President Trump in these last few weeks.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.