U.S. Atty. Gen. Barr steps down amid tumult at Justice Department
U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr, one of President Trump’s staunchest allies, is resigning amid lingering tension with the president over baseless claims of election fraud and the investigation into President-elect Joe Biden’s son.
Barr went to the White House on Monday, where Trump announced on Twitter that the attorney general submitted his letter of resignation. “As per letter, Bill will be leaving just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family,” Trump tweeted — just minutes after the electoral college certified Biden as the winner of the November election.
Trump has publicly expressed anger about Barr’s assertion earlier this month that the Justice Department had found no widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election.
The president has also been upset that the Justice Department did not publicly announce it was investigating Hunter Biden ahead of the election, despite department policy against such a pronouncement.
Apparently placated by Barr’s effusive resignation letter, which glossed over his recent frustrations, Trump declared that their “relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!” Trump said in the tweet that Deputy Atty. Gen. Jeff Rosen, whom he labeled “an outstanding person,” will become acting attorney general.
Barr told Trump that he was “proud to have played a role in the many successes and unprecedented achievements you have delivered for the American people. Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance.”
The rift between the pair was long in coming and highlighted how even the most loyal officials often find themselves on the outs with the president.
Within weeks of taking over as attorney general early last year, Barr went out of his way to defend Trump from allegations he obstructed the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The attorney general later backed his department’s attempt to prevent a government watchdog from forwarding to Congress a whistleblower’s complaint that would lead to the president’s impeachment. And his department aggressively fought efforts by Congress to obtain Trump’s tax returns.
Despite such steadfast service, tension between the pair steadily grew. Barr told colleagues he was frustrated by Trump’s bluster, baseless accusations about voter fraud and desire to criminalize political conduct. More than once, Barr warned Trump that his tweets urging investigations of political rivals would doom any such probes, according to Justice Department officials.
The issue of Trump blundering into Justice Department business came to a head in February when the president complained that prosecutors were seeking too stiff a prison term for his longtime friend Roger Stone, a Republican operative convicted of lying to House investigators, obstructing Congress and witness tampering.
Barr felt Trump’s tweets criticizing prosecutors, the jury forewoman and the judge were making it “impossible for me to do my job.”
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said.
Trump ignored him.
Barr widened the breach irreparably on Dec. 1 when he told the Associated Press in an interview that the Justice Department and FBI had not uncovered evidence of widespread voter fraud despite looking into the allegations. “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr told the wire service.
“Most claims of fraud are very particularized to a particular set of circumstances or actors or conduct. And those have been run down; they are being run down,” Barr said. “Some have been broad and potentially cover a few thousand votes. They have been followed up on.”
Democrat Biden beat Trump in the electoral college 306 to 232, the exact margin that led Trump to claim the White House in 2016 and that the president has called a “landslide.” Biden won the national popular vote lead by more than 7 million.
Even so, Trump has refused to concede and made repeated baseless claims that Biden stole the election through fraud in at least five swing states.
Barr’s comments were among the strongest yet by a Republican refuting Trump’s claims and carried added heft because he has been such a staunch defender of the president. The attorney general is respected by Republicans in Congress, and few criticized his statements upholding the integrity of the election even as they have joined Trump in undermining it.
Congressional reaction to Barr’s resignation was mixed. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hailed the attorney general in a statement, saying he was “the right man at the right time in overseeing highly political investigations and stood in the breach at times against both the left and the right. America has greatly benefited from the service of William Barr as attorney general, and I wish him well in all future endeavors.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, criticized Barr for how he handled the rollout of the Mueller report and “his callous disregard for civil rights to his rampant politicization of the Justice Department.” The New York Democrat added in the statement that Barr “was willing to do the president’s bidding on every front but one. Barr refused to play along with President Trump’s nonsensical claims to have won the election. He is now out as attorney general one month early.”
Barr, who also had served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, returned to lead the Justice Department in February 2019 after Trump forced Jeff Sessions to resign, saying he wanted an attorney general who would do more to protect him.
The president had spent much of the previous two years publicly belittling Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing investigations involving Trump’s campaign because he had served on it and had been such an early and ardent backer of the future president. Sessions’ recusal left oversight of the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign to Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller shortly after Trump fired his FBI director and admitted in a TV interview that Russia had played a role in that decision.
Trump found a defender in Barr, 70, a respected member of the Republican legal establishment and a vocal advocate for expansive executive powers.
Weeks after taking the job, Barr came under fire when Mueller completed his report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Barr sought to summarize it for the public.
Democrats and former prosecutors charged that Barr’s comments, weeks before the report was declassified and released, mischaracterized its findings by suggesting it exonerated the president. Mueller was more nuanced, writing: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Barr also supervised the Justice Department’s legal fight to block congressional access to witnesses and documents in several inquiries, including the House impeachment proceedings. And he oversaw the department’s efforts to thwart congressional Democrats and New York prosecutors from obtaining Trump’s tax returns.
In helping Trump pursue his domestic agenda, Barr launched, though later dropped, an antitrust investigation into four major automakers that had reached a deal with California to clamp down on vehicle pollution.
He backed Trump’s tough immigration plans and limited the ways immigrants can fight deportation. And he chastised progressive prosecutors for being soft on crime.
In December of last year, Barr publicly disagreed with a report by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, who found that the FBI was legally justified in launching its investigation into potential ties between Trump associates and his 2016 campaign, and that there was no evidence that politics had played a role in its inception.
In response, Barr said the FBI had initiated an investigation “on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” adding that evidence “was consistently exculpatory” of the Americans targeted.
He also tapped John Durham, a U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, and has tracked his work closely. On the same day Barr told the Associated Press he did not see widespread election fraud, the Justice Department announced that Durham was being appointed as a special counsel to finish his work. The move was meant to ensure that the Biden administration could not easily derail the investigation, Justice Department officials said.
Barr has resisted calls from Republicans to appoint a special counsel to continue the investigation of Biden’s son, Hunter, who disclosed this month his taxes were being investigated by the Justice Department. Trump and his allies spent the campaign assailing Hunter Biden’s ties to a Ukrainian gas company.