Updated at 12:59 p.m. ET on May 1, 2019.
Like so many prominent Trump-administration officials before him, William Barr didn’t need this job.
He had already served once as attorney general, at the young-for-government age of 41, after a rapid rise in the first Bush administration. Barr had lived a financially comfortable life in the private sector since, doing little to dent his image as a respected Republican lawyer—perhaps close to achieving the gilded Washington status of an éminence grise.
Then Donald Trump beckoned, and as Barr, the nation’s top law-enforcement officer once again, sits for another grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, another long-cultivated reputation is at risk of ruin. The revelation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrote to Barr to complain that his letter summarizing the conclusions of Mueller’s 448-page report “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the two-year investigation has spurred fresh outrage at Barr’s handling of the report, including calls for his resignation or even impeachment by the House.
The Democrats questioning Barr at the previously scheduled hearing have new ammunition for their charge that the attorney general whitewashed Mueller’s report, acting more as the president’s personal lawyer than the nation’s. They will demand that he explain not only his decision to clear Trump of obstruction of justice, but the discrepancies between his characterization of Mueller’s findings and the text of the report itself. After The Washington Post reported on Mueller’s letter Tuesday night, Democrats also accused Barr of falsely telling lawmakers during testimony last month that he did not know whether Mueller agreed with his conclusion that Trump did not commit a crime. At the time of his last appearance, on April 20, Barr had already received Mueller’s letter, which was dated March 27 and asked for the immediate release of the special counsel’s executive summaries.
The letter did not directly state that Mueller disagreed with Barr’s bottom-line conclusions, and a Justice Department spokeswoman told reporters that “the special counsel emphasized that nothing in the attorney general’s March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading.” Democrats demanded Barr’s resignation anyway.
“We now know Mueller stated his concerns on March 27th, and that Barr totally misled me, the Congress, and the public. He must resign,” tweeted Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who had asked Barr whether Mueller supported his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence that Trump had illegally obstructed the special counsel’s investigation into whether his 2016 campaign had conspired with the Russians to tip the presidential election.
Mueller’s apparent protest of Barr’s handling of his report is all the more dramatic because, by the attorney general’s own description, the two have been personal friends for more than 30 years after they worked closely together during Barr’s first stint at the Justice Department. Former colleagues described to me how Barr would rib the straitlaced Mueller during their daily morning meetings.
“They both hold the institution in very high regard,” said Paul McNulty, who sat in those meetings when he served as the department’s chief spokesman in the early 1990s. “It’s personal for them both. They have a certain deep affection for the work of the Department of Justice.”
McNulty, who went on to serve as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, told me last week that while there were disagreements between Mueller and Barr, “it wasn’t personal. They both knew that the other person was the real deal.”
In his letter, which the House Judiciary Committee released publicly on Wednesday morning, Mueller referenced two separate meetings in which his team advocated for the release of the report’s own executive summaries. The clear implication is that Mueller wanted those documents to serve as the official public summaries of his findings. Barr, however, chose to write his own letter and to withhold the summaries until he released the full, redacted report weeks later.
On Wednesday, Barr reminded senators that it was his prerogative.
“His work concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general,” he said of Mueller. “At that point, it was my baby, and I was making a decision as to whether or not to make it public.”
Mueller’s decision to write Barr a confidential letter is consistent with the way he handled internal disputes at the FBI, according to Frank Figliuzzi, who served as the bureau’s counterintelligence chief for a time under Mueller. Figliuzzi told me last week that when Mueller was overruled by leaders at the Department of Justice on a case, he would write a confidential memo memorializing his views and send it up the chain. “He wasn’t the one who would yell, scream, bang on the desk, and say, ‘This is all wrong,’” Figliuzzi said. “Those rare examples were very illustrative of him playing within the parameters he was given, but yet asserting his principles and ethics when necessary.”
House Democrats want Mueller to testify as well, but Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said the Justice Department “has been reluctant to confirm a date” for his appearance. Mueller remains a federal employee despite having apparently completed his assignment.
For now, they’ll have to make do with Barr. The attorney general initially resisted Trump’s call to return to government when he was approached about joining the president’s legal team. He told the Senate at his confirmation hearing in January that during an Oval Office meeting in mid-2017, he told Trump that he “didn’t really want to take on this burden.”
When Trump came calling again nearly a year and a half later, Barr was similarly reluctant, this time when the job at hand was another turn as attorney general. “I did not pursue this position. When my name was first raised, I was reluctant to be considered,” he told the Senate. “I am 68 years old, partially retired, and nearing the end of a long legal career. My wife and I were looking forward to a peaceful and cherished time with our daughters and grandchildren.”
“Ultimately,” Barr said, “I agreed to serve, because I believe strongly in
public service, I revere the law, and I love the Department of Justice and the dedicated professionals who serve there. I believe I can do a good job leading the department in these times.”
He pledged to lead “with the same independence” as in the first Bush administration. Dozens of veteran D.C. lawyers and former high-ranking Justice Department officials in both parties attested to his “character of unwavering commitment to the rule of law without regard to favor or politics.”
Still, there were doubts. He had already publicly criticized aspects of the Mueller investigation. Democrats were skeptical that he was truly independent. And there was the nagging question: Why, when so many Trump aides have seen their reputation tank under service to the president, would Barr want the job? As my colleague David Graham wrote at the time of Barr’s nomination, there was no obvious answer then. Perhaps he believed that he could navigate the tumult of Trump’s Washington better than others who had come before him. Perhaps he believed that the president was getting an unfair shake and needed someone who could help him out while remaining, in his words, independent. Perhaps, as his critics allege, he had no intention of being independent at all.
Barely four months later, as Barr sees his own image battered before Congress, that key question remains unanswered.