Barr Departs Early as Attorney General After Crossing Trump
William Barr, U.S. attorney general, center, wears a protective mask while departing from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

Barr Departs Early as Attorney General After Crossing Trump

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Attorney General William Barr is stepping down after crossing Donald Trump on two high-stakes issues that had dominated the president’s pronouncements in recent weeks: a probe into Joe Biden’s son and Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Barr’s departure was announced by Trump on Twitter Monday just minutes after Biden received enough votes to be officially considered president-elect by the Electoral College, which was meeting in every state.

Barr Departs Early as Attorney General After Crossing Trump

Barr “has done an outstanding job,” Trump said in a tweet, adding that the attorney general will leave office on Dec. 23. He’ll be succeeded by Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen, Trump added.

Barr’s departure followed a Dec. 1 interview with the Associated Press in which the attorney general said the Justice Department hadn’t seen “fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

Those comments poured cold water on Trump’s continued claims that President-elect Biden stole the Nov. 3 election through voter fraud and manipulation across a handful of swing states -- allegations that haven’t been substantiated. Barr, 70, had ordered U.S. attorneys across the country to find out if there was significant voting fraud following the claims by Trump and allies such as Rudy Giuliani.

In his resignation letter to the president, though, Barr said “these allegations will continue to be pursued” by the Justice Department.

46-Minute Speech

One day after Barr’s AP interview, Trump posted a 46-minute taped speech in which he repeated unfounded claims that Democrats had somehow fraudulently engineered his defeat. The speech repeated claims that have been rejected in court, as well as more outlandish conspiracies that his lawyers have not presented to judges.

Then on Dec. 3, the president balked at voicing support for his attorney general.

“Ask me that in a number of weeks from now,” Trump said in response to a question about whether he retained confidence in Barr. “They should be looking at all of this fraud.”

A second blow came when Biden’s transition team announced last week that Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son, was advised that he was under federal criminal investigation. Barr kept information about the probe, which had been going on since 2018, from being announced publicly, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Trump criticized Barr in an interview Saturday with Fox News, saying the attorney general should have disclosed the tax probe into Hunter Biden before the election.

“All he had to do is say an investigation is going on,” Trump said.

‘Frustrated’ With Barr

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said earlier Monday that the president was “frustrated” with the attorney general not doing more to highlight concerns over Hunter Biden ahead of the election.

“It’s unfortunate that the attorney general didn’t come out,” McEnany told Fox News.

As acting attorney general, Rosen could appoint a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden before Joe Biden takes office, although some law experts have questioned whether an appointment under that circumstance would be legal.

Alternatively, Rosen could simply put a senior Justice Department official in charge of overseeing the Hunter Biden matter, a move that wouldn’t provide as much protection to the official but may be more legally sound.

Despite the tensions between them, Barr offered praise for Trump and his accomplishments in a resignation letter.

“Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance,” Barr wrote in the letter, which Trump posted on Twitter. ”The nadir of this campaign was the effort to cripple, if not oust, your Administration with frenzied and baseless claims of collusion with Russia.”

Barr was nominated after Trump fired Jeff Sessions, his first attorney general, on the day after the 2018 midterm elections. When Barr took office in February 2019, it was his second stint as the nation’s top law enforcement officer after holding the post decades earlier, toward the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

Barr Departs Early as Attorney General After Crossing Trump

Turbulent Term

This time, Barr’s tenure was turbulent and controversial. Moving aggressively, he sought to restore the department’s reputation as strong on law-and-order issues and to pursue his longtime belief that the Constitution justifies a dominant role for the executive branch.

But he was criticized for bending to Trump’s political demands, including becoming personally involved in criminal cases against some of the president’s allies, to the point that some career prosecutors resigned in protest.

Responding to Barr’s departure, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a tweet, “There should be no sympathy or regret for an Attorney General who trashed the rule of law, caused untold suffering, & enabled a morally depraved president. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Trump and his allies also wanted Barr to reveal information from an investigation into whether FBI or intelligence officials committed any wrongdoing in the early stages of their probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone associated with Trump conspired in the operation. Barr even echoed Trump’s claim that his campaign had been the victim of “spying.”

But weeks before the election, Barr signaled that the FBI-Russia probe, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, wouldn’t release preliminary findings ahead of the vote.

“To be honest, Bill Barr is going to go down as either the greatest attorney general in the history of the country or he’s going to down as a very sad situation,” Trump said in an interview in October on Fox Business Network.

Ardent Supporter

Yet in what many Republicans will see as a parting gift, Barr said he named Durham to serve as special counsel in the continuing FBI-Russia probe, meaning his work will likely continue into the Biden administration. Democrats called the move an abuse of power.

Barr’s falling out with Trump came after he had been one of the most ardent and aggressive supporters of the president and his policies.

In 2019, Barr came under criticism for mischaracterizing the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in 2016, putting a gloss favorable to Trump on the report before releasing it publicly. Barr said Mueller’s probe found that Trump didn’t obstruct the Russia investigation, even though Mueller had found evidence of obstruction.

Barr belittled the career prosecutors he led, told U.S. attorneys to consider charging violent protesters under a sedition law that makes it a crime to interfere with law enforcement or plot a coup, compared coronavirus lockdowns to slavery, backed Trump’s unsupported assertion that a foreign power could manipulate mail-in ballots and intervened in a case involving a rape accusation against Trump that was being handled by the president’s personal lawyers.

Barr also ordered a reduced sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, convicted of lying to Congress about his activities during Trump’s 2016 campaign; moved to drop charges against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn; and fired the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who had been leading investigations into Trump.

Advancing conservatives stances on issues that come before the Justice Department, Barr moved away from using consent decrees with local police departments to ensure civil liberties were protected, championed freedom of speech on college campuses and pushed to let churches remain open despite state and local coronavirus restrictions.

In the most significant antitrust case under Barr, the Justice Department sued Alphabet Inc.’s Google on Oct. 20, alleging it engaged in anticompetitive practices to maintain and extend its monopoly in the online search market in the U.S.

Perhaps on no other issue was Barr more public or vocal than in supporting Trump’s effort to brand himself as the “law and order” candidate. Like Trump, Barr asserted that violence during protests against police abuse was caused largely by left-wing anarchists, even though right-wing extremists were involved as well and most protests were peaceful.

Critics argued that political accountability had been undermined by Barr’s decisions favoring Trump.

Almost 2,000 former Justice Department officials wrote an open letter in May calling Barr’s actions “unprecedented” and saying he had “assaulted the rule of law.”

Rosen’s Background

Rosen, who will become acting attorney general in the closing weeks of Trump’s administration, has served in government posts including as general counsel and later deputy director of the Transportation Department and as general counsel of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

From 2009 to 2017, Rosen was a senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, where Barr also worked. After Barr became attorney general in February 2019, he successfully lobbied Trump to pick Rosen as his deputy.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading Republican supporter of Trump but also Barr, said in a statement Monday that Roen is “a good man and will be an ethical leader and a steady hand at the Department of Justice.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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