William Barr is Trump’s Most Powerful Lawyer

Trump’s Other Lawyer

Much more powerful than Giuliani, William Barr is exercising the Justice Department’s full force to defend a president in crisis.

Barr photographed in his office at the Department of Justice on December 3. Photo: David Williams for New York Magazine

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Shortly before 5 p.m. on November 15, Attorney General William P. Barr arrived at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., his owlish face wearing a heavy expression. He and his entourage rushed by the lobby bar, where a television was tuned to CNN’s coverage of another day of damning impeachment hearings and raging presidential tweets. Inside a gilded ballroom, hundreds of conservative lawyers — many of them, like Barr, veterans of previous Republican administrations — were gathered to hear him deliver an address to the annual conference of the Federalist Society. “It will come as little surprise to this group,” Barr began, “that I’ve chosen to speak about the Constitution’s approach to executive power.” Even by the standards of this brazen era in Washington, in which all subtext is banished, the theme of the evening was a little on-the-nose — a startlingly explicit case for strengthening Donald Trump’s hold on American government.

“The grammar-school-civics-class version of our Revolution is that it was a rebellion against monarchical tyranny, and that in framing our Constitution, one of the preoccupations, the main preoccupation of the Founders, was to keep the executive weak,” Barr told the audience. “This is misguided.” Instead, Barr advocates for what is known as the “unitary executive theory,” which challenges the long-established doctrine that the president’s control over his branch of government is shared, to some degree, with Congress and the courts. “Whenever I see a court opinion that uses the word share,” Barr said, “I want to run in the other direction.” Critics say that in its maximalist form, the theory is a license for authoritarianism — a concern that Barr dismissed with ridicule.

One of the more amusing aspects of modern progressive polemic is their breathless attacks on the unitary executive theory,” Barr said. He paused for effect, waved his arms, and shouted ghoulishly: “Bwaaaaaaaaaa!” He recounted his own confirmation hearing, at which Democratic senators pressed him to explain his muscular philosophy. “This is not ‘new,’ and it’s not a ‘theory,’” Barr said. If anything, he argued, the president’s rightful power had been stolen, a view shaped by his personal history. Barr started his career as a CIA analyst in 1973 in the midst of Watergate. At the time, the Agency was besieged by revelations of its misdeeds, congressional investigations, and political battles over regulation of intelligence activities. But where others saw the post-Watergate reforms as a triumph of accountability, Barr viewed them as the beginning of a constitutional wrong turn. At the Mayflower, he spoke of the “steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate,” now exacerbated by partisan conflict.

“Immediately after President Trump won election, opponents inaugurated what they called the resistance,” Barr said. “They rallied around an explicit strategy of using every tool and maneuver to sabotage the functioning of the executive branch and his administration. Now, ‘resistance’ is the language used to describe insurgency against rule imposed by an occupying military power. It obviously connotes that the government is not legitimate. This is a very dangerous and indeed incendiary notion to import into the politics of a democratic republic.” Without mentioning the impeachment hearings, Barr accused Democrats in Congress of using “constant harassment” to “incapacitate the executive branch” and the administration’s agenda. Those who accused Trump of acting like an anti-democratic menace, Barr said, had it backward. “In waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of resistance against this administration,” he said, “it is the left that is engaged in a systematic shredding of norms and undermining the rule of law.”

Barr’s message was met with applause in the room and a savage reaction outside it. On social media, liberal commentators howled in protest, while his most important audience, @realDonaldTrump, retweeted a video clip of his attack on the resistance. A few days afterward, Checks and Balances, a group of conservative lawyers and scholars who oppose Trump, issued a statement calling his “autocratic vision” ahistorical and contrary to the Constitution. Barr was untroubled.

“Generally, no one really cares what they think,” Barr said of the Checks and Balances crowd when we met the week of Thanksgiving amid the wood-paneled grandeur of his office suite on the fifth floor of the Justice Department headquarters. In person, on a darkening fall afternoon, the 69-year-old was subdued, his voice softened almost to a mumble. Barr claims to ignore the newspapers and social media, and whether that is entirely true, he certainly occupies his position with a comfort that eluded his immediate predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Barr knew the office well, having served as attorney general once before during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. He said he returned to government, after nearly 30 years, with the objective of restoring order.

“People who had a lot of antipathy toward Trump seemed to be willing to go to any lengths to injure his administration,” Barr said. “I felt that was unfair and harmful to the system and important institutions, including the presidency, and I felt there should be people in the Department of Justice to help navigate through these times.”

As attorney general, Barr is at once the nation’s chief prosecutor and the president’s highest-ranking legal counselor, an inherently conflicted role when the president is accused of wrongdoing. But over the past year, with bureaucratic dexterity and bluff self-assurance, Barr has effectively turned the Justice Department to face down Trump’s adversaries. In the spring, he brought a muffled conclusion to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, managing the release of his report in a way that limited its impact and declaring the evidence did not show Trump committed obstruction of justice. Barr then initiated a secretive internal probe of the origins of the Russia investigation, headed by veteran prosecutor John Durham, who is scrutinizing the FBI and CIA. Barr, who claims there was “spying” on Trump’s campaign, has played a hands-on role in Durham’s work, traveling the world to convince foreign intelligence services to cooperate in his investigation of the investigation.

His performance appears to have earned Trump’s confidence to a rare degree. In the phone call with Ukraine’s president that set off impeachment, the president mentioned Barr in the same breath as his attorney Rudy Giuliani. Barr was reportedly angry when he heard about the call, though, and in fairness, he is nobody’s personal fixer. Rather, Barr is an intimidatingly competent governmental operator — a man who “knows the levers,” as one former Trump-administration Justice official put it. A better comparison, often made by Barr’s peers, is to Dick Cheney. Barr appreciates power, and he knows how to wield it.

As the Durham probe, the ongoing impeachment drama, and the presidential campaign play out in the coming months, Barr will occupy a crucial position. While crowds chant “Lock her up” and “Lock him up,” he holds the keys to the prying powers of law enforcement. To give just one example, Barr is ultimately overseeing the investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan that is reportedly zeroing in on Giuliani and his efforts to dig dirt and do business in Ukraine. He will potentially have a say when the president decides whether to pardon convicted associates like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Presuming he remains in the president’s favor — never a sure bet — he will be advising Trump through a reelection year that is certain to revolve around allegations of Trump’s corruption. Barr’s analysis of Trump’s presidency is right in at least one respect: As much as the president likes to play autocrat on Twitter, hurling orders and threatening his enemies, so far, he has actually been quite weak — constrained by Congress, the courts, protests, and, often, his own administration’s incompetence. It is Barr who will be guiding him as he goes forward, determined to test the bounds of his power.

Photo: David Williams for New York Magazine

When Trump nominated Barr to be attorney general in December 2018, some foes of the president, glancing at Barr’s experience, his many personal connections to the Justice Department, and the array of former deputies and protégés he had seeded all over the Republican legal Establishment, jumped to the conclusion that he might prove to be a nuisance to the president. “All my friends, they projected their feelings onto Bill, believing him to be an institutionalist who would ‘stand up to Trump,’ ” says an academic who once worked with Barr. “I warned everybody: ‘Don’t do that.’ ”

In fact, Barr could hardly have been more explicit in indicating what he believed and what he would do when the president sent him to the Justice Department. “I think it started picking up after Watergate,” Barr said in a 2001 interview for a University of Virginia oral-history project on the first Bush administration, “the idea that the Department of Justice has to be ‘independent.’ ” Barr thinks it is not just impossible but undesirable for prosecutors to operate independently of politics. “Career people are just as capable of acting politically with a small p, and I think, at the end of the day, if you’re making a decision, it should be made by people who are accountable,” Barr told me. “Our system puts political appointees in that position. That’s why we have elections.” Barr has said that criminal investigations — especially the most important ones — require “political supervision,” and he has contended that the Constitution grants the president “illimitable” authority over law enforcement, even if it is scrutinizing the White House.

Like his boss, Barr is the product of a privileged New York upbringing — his father was a memorably authoritarian headmaster at Dalton — who rebelled against his hometown’s liberal culture. Not long after joining the CIA, Barr transferred to the Agency’s internal legal office and started taking law classes at night. He caught the eye of the then–CIA director, George H.W. Bush. Years later, as president, Bush gave Barr his first job at Justice, naming him to head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The office offers guidance on the legality of executive actions, which gives it great influence in government, especially in national-security matters. (A former head of the office once said its role was to “dispense get-out-of-jail-free cards.”)

At his Senate-confirmation hearing, in 1989, Barr described the formative effect of his CIA experience, while the then–Judiciary Committee chairman, Joe Biden, pressed the issue of his “independence.” Biden advised Barr to ignore the “pull and tug” of the Oval Office in forming his legal opinions and asked him about the “genius of the system of checks and balances.”

“It is a very broad issue, what are my views of the separation of powers,” Barr said.

“Start anywhere you like,” Biden replied.

“Well,” Barr said, “let us start with Aristotle.”

Barr went on to offer a pithy encapsulation of the history of representative government, touching on the Greeks, the Romans, and the Founders, before concluding with the observation that separation “doesn’t lead to the most efficient government, but over the long run the freest government.” For all his conciliatory intellectual rhetoric, though, Barr had been given a confrontational mission to expand presidential authority. “All of us, coming out of Watergate, felt that Congress had taken more than its proper share of power back,” says C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel at the time. He says he recommended Barr because he wanted an ally at the OLC who believed in the theory of the unitary executive.

Soon after Barr was confirmed, he issued a memorandum targeting a list of “encroachments” on executive authority, including the independent-counsel law, a post-Watergate reform that protected political investigations from interference. Barr disliked the law because he thought an independent prosecutor, with a single focus, could easily run rampant, pursuing phantom crimes. Even among Republicans who believed in a strong president, some of Barr’s positions were extreme. “Bill’s answer was uniformly that the president gets what he wants,” says Douglas Kmiec, Barr’s immediate OLC predecessor, who now teaches constitutional law at Pepperdine University. “I think a good number of us from OLC said, ‘Wait a minute.’ ”

Barr turned his small office into an ideological engine room staffed by like-minded young conservatives and fought internal battles with the more-moderate factions of the Bush administration. Some senior officials referred to Barr and his deputy as “the bulldogs.” Barr was known for his infinite confidence, but he occasionally outsmarted himself. Journalist Jan Crawford, in her book Supreme Conflict, writes that when a seat opened on the Supreme Court in 1990, OLC attorneys worked all night to prepare a memo that would sink the leading candidate, Kenneth Starr, a colleague Barr considered “maddeningly squishy.” The seat instead went to David Souter, the favorite of Bush’s chief of staff, who turned out to be a reliable liberal vote.

Barr impressed Bush, though, and after an unusually quick scramble up the rungs of the department, he was named attorney general in 1991 at the age of 41. His primary preoccupation was violent crime, which was then seen as an epidemic. Unlike many who come into the position, Barr had little previous experience with law enforcement, so he assembled a leadership team of seasoned prosecutors. The head of his criminal division was a square-jawed ex-Marine, Robert Mueller. Barr advocated punitive measures to fight gangs and gun offenses, and the department produced a report with the now-infamous title “The Case for More Incarceration.” His crime crackdown had bipartisan support. Barr and Biden cooperated. “I think it’s pretty fair to say that Bill charmed Joe Biden,” says Timothy Flanigan, who worked under Barr in the OLC. Biden invited the Barr family up to visit his home in Delaware.

Much of Barr’s tenure coincided with the 1992 election campaign. Like every attorney general, he faced decisions with political implications, and he was unapologetic about looking out for Bush’s interests. When a coup in Haiti caused throngs of refugees to flee in boats, Barr set a policy of intercepting them at sea and detaining them at Guantánamo Bay, outside the purview of U.S. immigration laws. The policy caused a clash with military leaders, including Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. In the oral-history interview, Barr said his attitude was: “You want 80,000 Haitians to descend on Florida several months before the election? Come on, give me a break.”

Bill Clinton ran on an economic message, but Bush would blame his defeat on a political investigation. On the Friday before the election, Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel probing the Iran-Contra scandal, issued an indictment that included new details about Bush’s role. The news dominated the last days of the race. “Walsh abused his power!” Bush complained to Barr the day after the election, according to Bob Woodward’s book Shadow. On his way out of office, Bush wanted to put an end to the long-running investigation. Under the independent-counsel statute, Walsh could be fired for misconduct, a move Barr considered. But he and Bush settled on another solution. Bush simply pardoned all the Iran-Contra defendants.

In the final stage of the campaign, Barr was presented with an opportunity to exercise the kind of political supervision he believed prosecutors required. On a flight to a ceremony with other administration officials, a White House aide informed him, cryptically, of a rumor about a case down in Arkansas involving a savings-and-loan and Bill Clinton. Barr did some digging and discovered that the U.S. Attorney in Little Rock was sitting on a criminal referral that mentioned Clinton and a failed real-estate venture called the Whitewater Development Corporation. The prosecutor, a Republican, found the case flimsy, and the referral described Bill and Hillary Clinton as witnesses, not suspects. But Barr had been told that the prosecutor’s conclusion was “cutting them a lot of slack,” he later testified in a deposition, and he decided to “get the case on the right track” by escalating it to Washington. Mueller held a meeting with FBI officials and told them to investigate aggressively, just as in any other bank-fraud case. The Arkansas prosecutor fired off an angry letter, saying the “insistence for urgency” suggested an “attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election.”

Barr dictated that the investigation would proceed, but in secret, so as not to interfere with the election. “Later, a number of Republicans said, ‘Well, hell, why didn’t you? You would’ve saved the country,’ ” Barr told me. He laughed, since we both knew how the story ended for Clinton. With the complaint revived, the FBI continued to investigate the Whitewater case after Barr was gone. Political investigations burn on a long fuse. An independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, took over the inquiry, and it went in unanticipated directions.

Barr with President George H. Bush in 1992. Photo: AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander

Just one year ago, Barr was semi-retired and semi-obscure, practicing law in Washington and living in McLean, Virginia, the deep state’s suburban home. After his relatively brief stint as attorney general ended with Bush’s defeat, he left government at an age young enough to embark on a whole second career. He became general counsel at a small telephone company, GTE, which he helped to guide through a series of mergers and acquisitions as it morphed into Verizon. He gained deep knowledge of regulation and antitrust law and made a considerable fortune. (Forbes has estimated his net worth at $40 million.) In 2008, Barr took an early retirement from Verizon and went on to a comfortable position at a prominent Washington law firm.

All three of his daughters, who attended his first Senate-confirmation hearing in their Sunday best, grew up to be government lawyers, and two of them have worked for the Justice Department. (So have two of his sons-in-law.) Barr himself never completely left the orbit of the department. He still socialized with old colleagues, like Mueller and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who often attended the Barr family’s Scottish-themed Christmas parties. (Barr likes to play the bagpipes.) Barr sometimes called up to offer input to his successors. After 9/11, for instance, Barr suggested the idea of using military commissions to try captured terrorists.

Barr supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 primaries, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he never voiced opposition to Trump. However, he did watch, with growing horror, as the result of the election threw the Justice Department into disarray. Democrats blamed FBI director James Comey for sinking Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, in part, by mishandling the FBI’s investigation into her emails. Meanwhile, in secret, the Bureau had launched a counterintelligence investigation, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” into suspected Russian attempts to swing the campaign for Trump. When that news broke after Trump’s election, some in Barr’s world of Justice Department alumni were troubled by the prospect — however remote — that Trump might be a Russian tool. But Barr’s faction of the community was pulsing with an alternative set of suspicions, focusing on the motives of those who initiated the investigation.

“It was apparent to all of us that there was a ‘Get Trump’ attitude in the leadership of the FBI,” says George Terwilliger, a longtime friend of Barr’s who served as his deputy attorney general in the 1990s. During the early stages of Trump’s presidency, Terwilliger was speaking to Barr a few times a week. “I know he was extremely concerned,” Terwilliger says. They both saw evidence of political bias in disclosures about Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two key figures in the FBI who were having an affair amid Crossfire Hurricane and exchanging anti-Trump text messages, which Barr has deemed “appalling.” And both found it suspicious that Comey and the FBI were relying on information gathered in the Steele dossier, which was funded by Trump’s political opponents.

In 2017, the Russia investigation appeared to pose a serious threat to Trump’s presidency. After Trump fired Comey, Mueller was appointed by the DOJ as special prosecutor. He spent the summer assembling an aggressive staff and issuing search warrants. Trump and his family sought to bolster the president’s defense team. They approached Barr through an intermediary, David Friedman — the former Trump bankruptcy attorney who is now the ambassador to Israel — and asked if he would be interested in joining. Barr declined. “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder,” Barr later testified. But he agreed to meet with Trump at the White House the next morning. In the Oval Office, Trump pressed Barr for his personal impressions of Mueller. “I told him how well I knew Bob Mueller and … the Barrs and Muellers were good friends and would be good friends when this is all over,” Barr testified. “Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.”

Barr has made much of his personal relationship with Mueller, letting it be known that their wives attend Bible study together, and Mueller was a guest at two of his daughters’ weddings. It is a shield against any suggestion he would set out to undermine the investigation. But his full opinion of Mueller, according to people who know both men, is more complicated. Over their long relationship, Barr was always the alpha. Former colleagues say that while Barr respected Mueller, he saw him as an able prosecutor, not a brilliant legal mind. “I doubt it would be any surprise to Bill to learn or conclude that Bob’s staff was driving the train much more than Bob was,” said one person who has worked with both men. When Mueller was his subordinate in the 1990s, Barr would often subject him to intellectual hazing.

“Bill was always making fun of people in his meetings, and Mueller was a particular target of his fun,” recalls another former colleague. “Mueller would say things that were kind of stupid at times, and Bill would just mercilessly make fun of him.”

As the investigation developed, Barr grew convinced Mueller required guidance. News reports were hinting that the prosecutors were pursuing a theory that by firing Comey and publicly attacking the “witch hunt,” Trump had obstructed justice. Barr thought that Mueller’s “novel” obstruction theory, as he later described it, was a constitutionally dangerous path, and so on a snowy day in early 2018, he went to visit the DOJ’s headquarters, a monumental building known as Main Justice, to lunch with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Because Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation, Rosenstein had appointed Mueller and was responsible for overseeing his work. Like Sessions, Rosenstein had a tortured relationship with Trump. It was later reported that Rosenstein was so alarmed after Comey’s firing that he offered to wear a wire to a White House meeting. (There is dispute about whether he was joking.)

The two men ordered in Chinese food and discussed a variety of topics, including the Mueller investigation and its focus on Comey’s firing. Barr told Rosenstein it would be wrong and crippling to criminalize a president’s decisions to remove top officials, which were part of his constitutional duties. As he made his case, he recalled, Rosenstein was “sphinxlike in his reaction.” So Barr decided to follow up in writing.

Barr’s concerns about a politically unaccountable FBI have some historical grounding — think of J. Edgar Hoover, so feared he effectively had tenure for life. Barr later said he was afraid that Trump’s case could have “a chilling effect” on the president’s role in law enforcement. He put his thinking into a long memo, which he sent to Rosenstein and the head of the OLC. “I know you will agree that, if a DOJ investigation is going to take down a democratically elected president,” Barr wrote, “it is imperative to the health of our system and to our national cohesion that any claim of wrongdoing is solidly based on evidence of a real crime — not a debatable one.” He urged the officials not to “indulge the fancies by overly zealous prosecutors.”

Barr conceded that a president could obstruct justice through specific bad acts, like destroying evidence, but he said he otherwise had “necessarily all-encompassing” authority over law enforcement. “He alone is the Executive branch,” Barr wrote, citing a Supreme Court decision. “While the president has subordinates — the Attorney General and DOJ lawyers — who exercise prosecutorial discretion on his behalf, they are merely ‘his hand.’ ”

Barr wanted his message to reach Mueller, and he put it in many bottles. He shared the memo widely with Justice Department alumni, academics, and members of Trump’s legal team, which included Emmet Flood, the attorney who oversaw the final stages of the Mueller investigation inside the White House counsel’s office. When Sessions resigned that November, Flood advocated for Barr to be his replacement. “I think he presented himself to the president as the guy who could get it done,” says one former Trump-administration DOJ official, “and solve the problem that was confronting the president.”

While some have said his memo looked like a job application, Barr has called the suggestion “ludicrous.” Friends say he agreed to join the administration only reluctantly. The final push came at a retreat for a CIA advisory board he served on. “At that retreat,” Barr said, “there were a lot of Democratic businessmen and others, and they were talking about the importance of having the department in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing.” Still, many friends were surprised that he would expose himself to the daily animosity of politics, as well as the potential for humiliation by Trump, who ridiculed Sessions without mercy. On his first day on the job, at a Rose Garden ceremony where Trump signed an emergency declaration allowing him to build his border wall over congressional objections, the president singled out Barr and said, a tad ominously: “Enjoy your life.”

“He says that a lot,” Barr said with a grin.

Unlike Sessions, Barr commanded immediate respect at Main Justice, where his bureaucratic expertise allowed him to take control. Already, some of the initial chaos ushered in by Trump’s presidency had begun to subside, as conservative political appointees asserted themselves and many career attorneys who had joined during the Obama administration gave up and left. “As time progressed, loyalty became the dominant mentality,” says Erica Newland, an OLC attorney who quit shortly before Barr arrived. Barr’s department has pressed Trump’s policies on a variety of fronts, from immigration (for instance, by curtailing rights to asylum), to drugs (Barr’s daughter Mary headed the DOJ’s opioid enforcement initiative for a time), to technology (pressuring companies for backdoors to encryption), to crime. After nearly two decades, Barr resumed the use of the federal death penalty; the first execution is scheduled for December 9 (pending appeals). The department has fought subpoenas to reveal information about Trump’s tax returns and other politically charged issues.

Barr’s first order of business, though, was dealing with the Mueller report. When Barr finally had a chance to talk to Mueller, in March, he said he was surprised to learn the special counsel was coming to a non-decision on the obstruction issue. Mueller turned in his 448-page report soon afterward, presenting a highly damaging picture of Trump’s actions but declining to come to a “traditional prosecutorial judgment.” Barr temporarily withheld the report from Congress and the public, citing the need for careful redactions. Instead, he issued a short summary of Mueller’s findings, offering his own conclusion that the evidence of obstruction was “not sufficient” and eliding an — admittedly confusing — legal nuance. Because of an OLC opinion that said the president could not be indicted while in office, Mueller had reasoned that it would be unfair to accuse Trump of committing a crime with no opportunity to defend himself in court. He seemed to imply that it was up to Congress to indict him via impeachment.

Barr’s favorable summary met with protest from Democrats and recriminations from Mueller’s office, which complained that the report’s findings had been mischaracterized. (Barr later called Mueller’s reaction “a bit snitty” and blamed the special counsel’s staff.) But the whole controversy served to blunt the force of the full report when it arrived weeks later. A furious House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened to hold Barr in criminal contempt, claiming he had lied to Congress about his dealings with Mueller over the report. Barr laughed off both the allegation and the symbolic action. “Madam Speaker,” Barr asked when they encountered each other at a Capitol Hill ceremony soon afterward, “did you bring your handcuffs?”

Barr’s defenders say that he did eventually release the report, which was not legally required, and it is not his fault if the public didn’t read it or get outraged. In a final bid to galvanize public opinion, House Democrats summoned a reluctant Mueller to testify in July. But the hearings were an anticlimax, as Mueller seemed fumbling and uncertain under questioning. His old colleagues from the Justice Department, even ones who are critical of Barr, say they thought Mueller looked aged — not like the man they knew. Fairly or not, the shaky performance reinforced the rumors that the revered prosecutor, who is now 75, was not fully in control of his investigation.

“Bill Barr might have been the only person in the country conversant with how Bob would actually come across,” says Douglas Kmiec, who overlapped with both of them in the Justice Department 30 years ago. “The rest of us, without the same familiarity, kept seeing the same picture of Bob Mueller as the man of steel.”

Trump and Barr in Washington on May 15. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

The day after Mueller testified, Trump called the president of Ukraine, setting up the next episode in his police-procedural presidency. “That whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine,” Trump said, according to the reconstructed transcript. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.” A great deal hinges on what the definition of the word it is. Trump seemed to be conflating two investigations: John Durham’s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation and Giuliani’s intrigues, focused on surfacing damaging information about Joe and Hunter Biden. The fact that Trump apparently saw them as a single agenda item may be careless talk or evidence of a deeper connection in his mind between the two efforts, both focused on his enemies.

“I’ve had zero conversation with Ukraine,” Barr told me, reaffirming a statement the Justice Department put out in September, which also said Trump had never brought up investigating Biden with Barr. The Justice Department played an important role, however, in the effort to keep the contents of the call from becoming public after the fact. In August, after the White House informed the department of the whistle-blower’s complaint, the OLC issued an opinion that said it could be withheld from Congress on the grounds that the applicable law did not cover presidential misconduct. The department also determined Trump had not broken campaign-finance laws. After the complaint came out, the Washington Post recently reported, Trump wanted his attorney general to go even further by holding a press conference to declare him innocent and was upset that Barr refused.

But Barr has extended himself to a surprising degree in chasing the president’s suspicions. In May, shortly after the Mueller report was released, he discounted its findings of extensive Russian efforts to contact and influence the Trump campaign. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy,” Barr told Jan Crawford in an in-depth interview for CBS News. “So it was bogus, this whole idea that Trump was in cahoots with the Russians is bogus.” He blamed “a small group at the top” of the FBI and painted their actions in apocalyptic terms. “I mean, republics have fallen because of [a] Praetorian Guard mentality,” he said, “where government officials get very arrogant, they identify the national interest with their own political preferences, and they feel that anyone who has a different opinion is somehow an enemy of the state.” Crawford asked if the investigators’ actions in pursuing Crossfire Hurricane might amount to “treason,” the word Trump has used. Barr said only, “Not as a legal matter.”

The same month, Barr appointed Durham to investigate the investigation. The dimensions of what the prosecutor had been assigned to do were unclear, but as the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, Durham had no obvious political bias. He had served both Democratic and Republican presidents, prosecuting many tough mob and public-corruption cases, and had a reputation for extreme secrecy. During the Obama administration, he conducted a highly classified investigation of the CIA’s alleged use of torture. Over the past few months, Trump allies like Michael Mukasey, a former Republican attorney general whose official portrait hangs in Barr’s office, have fanned speculation that Durham is onto something. “He is an experienced and principled prosecutor,” Mukasey wrote in The Wall Street Journal in September. “Stay tuned.”

What could Durham be looking into? Barr initially questioned the evidence supporting the FBI’s secret warrant for electronic surveillance on Carter Page, the Trump campaign’s foreign-policy adviser, along with other unspecified breaks with “normal procedures” at the FBI. In May, he told CBS that he had asked questions about the FBI’s actions in 2016, and the answers he received were “just not jiving.” More recent indications suggest that the probe has since broadened in scope to examine not just the FBI but also the CIA. In late October, the New York Times reported that Durham’s work, originally classified vaguely as an “administrative review,” was now a criminal investigation, allowing him to issue subpoenas and convene a grand jury, a step that could be routine or something more.

In late September, as all of Washington was poring over the CIA whistle-blower’s complaint, Barr was in Rome, meeting with government counterparts, reportedly including the chief of Italy’s intelligence agency, to assure their cooperation with Durham. Barr has also sought assistance from Australia and Great Britain, and the department has said Durham talked to “certain Ukrainians who are not members of the government.” According to an anonymous British official recently quoted in the Independent, Barr’s inquiries have been “like nothing we have come across before, they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services.”

“That’s all bullshit,” Barr said to me in his office of the skepticism surrounding his overseas meetings, which he said were necessary under the circumstances. “This is a case where we’re asking for assistance and information, some of which is sensitive or classified information.”

It would be easy to dismiss Durham’s probe as a fool’s errand simply because some unserious people are taking it seriously, but there are legitimate questions to be asked about how the FBI conducted itself, like: Why didn’t the Bureau try to warn Trump’s campaign it was afraid the Russians were trying to compromise the candidate before it launched a counterintelligence operation? (Naming it Crossfire Hurricane does convey a gunslinging mentality.) Barr has defended his use of the term spying to describe the FBI’s actions, calling it a “perfectly good English word,” and has said the use of surveillance against a campaign is “a serious red line that’s been crossed.” Defenders of the FBI’s handling of the investigation say that any irregularities were the result of panic, not politics, and that the prospect of foreign infiltration of a presidential campaign presented an extraordinary threat calling for extraordinary vigilance. Fragmentary reports about the findings of a just-completed report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, examining some of the same issues and scheduled to be released December 9, say it concludes that the FBI’s decision to launch the counterintelligence investigation was justified based on the evidence it had. But Barr is said to disagree with the report’s conclusions, feeling that Durham has found information that deserves further investigation and contending that agencies outside the purview of the DOJ’s internal watchdog, such as the CIA, may have important undisclosed information.

In their Italian trips, Barr and Durham reportedly showed interest in evidence pertaining to Joseph Mifsud, a mysterious Russia-connected professor who tipped off a Trump adviser about the hacking and release of Democratic emails in early 2016. Mifsud is also a fixture of right-wing conspiracy theories, which postulate that he was an agent not of Russia but the CIA and somehow working against Trump. On December 4, the Washington Post reported that the inspector general’s report uncovered no evidence to support the theory that Mifsud was a CIA asset and questioned whether Durham had, either.

Barr’s critics contend he merely wants to keep asking questions until he finds the answer Trump wants or at least confuses the issue politically. In the darkest light, Durham’s investigation looks like a way for Trump to undermine the impeachment inquiry — which, after all, emanated from the CIA — while also holding the threat of punishment over those he has already purged, like Strzok, Comey, and Comey’s deputy Andrew McCabe. “It’s worse than even I anticipated,” says Neil Kinkopf, a liberal legal scholar who warned of the “breathtaking scope” of Barr’s theory of presidential power at his Senate-confirmation hearing. “I think I was at the extreme end of bad, but even I did not anticipate him acting as the president’s political lawyer.”

“What’s political for one side is law enforcement for the other,” says one of Barr’s aides. “It depends on where you sit. But you follow the law to where it goes.” In some cases, the law goes to uncomfortable places for Trump. Early this year, for instance, Barr was briefed on an investigation being conducted by the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which was looking into a pair of Giuliani associates who were then in the midst of helping him pressure a prosecutor in Ukraine to announce an investigation of a gas company with which Hunter Biden was involved. In October, the two men were hurriedly arrested at Dulles airport, shortly after meeting Giuliani at Trump’s hotel in Washington. They were charged with lying about their political donations, which included a $325,000 contribution to a Trump-aligned super-PAC. Subpoenas in that case have lately reached into Trump’s fund-raising and many other potentially embarrassing areas.

Although the Southern District is unofficially known as the Sovereign District, because it operates with stubborn autonomy, it is still an office of the Justice Department, reporting to the attorney general. So far, the investigation has proceeded without publicly reported interference, even as prosecutors have reportedly focused on Giuliani himself. Barr is said to have little affection for Trump’s increasingly erratic private attorney. But even so, he has argued, in his 2018 memo, that the president has “absolute” discretion to place “his thumb on the scale in favor of lenity” — meaning Trump could, in theory, ask him to take it easy on his friend Rudy. When I asked Barr if there were any limits, outside of illegality, on what the president could instruct him to do, he told me he and Trump had set strict ground rules. “Right from the very beginning,” Barr said, “the president made clear to me, and we discussed, that he will not get into the business of talking about, or asking me, either to pursue, or not to pursue, cases. He leaves that up to my judgment.”

Still, if there is one thing that is now clear about Barr, it is that he carries out orders. Both his friends and his critics accept that he is motivated less by a desire to protect this individual president than to reinforce the institution of the presidency, especially and not coincidentally in periods when the executive branch is controlled by the Republican Party. “He’s come to this theory that the presidency should be all-powerful,” says Donald Ayer, a Justice Department official in the first Bush administration who belongs to Checks and Balances. “And here you have a president who is going to afford you, by his blunderbuss behavior, a lot of context in which you can push or test your theory.”

A few days before I met Barr, Trump had given a rambling interview to Fox & Friends. He had talked up the Justice Department’s ongoing counter-investigation led by Durham like a wrestler promoting a showdown, predicting that “Bull Durham” would soon reveal a plot to “overthrow the presidency” and thereby help to prove the corruption of the entire impeachment “scam.” I asked Barr how that fit into their ground rules.

Barr blinked quizzically. He seemed to be genuinely unaware of the Fox interview, which had burned up social media. His staffers hurriedly tried to brief him.

“There’s a movie, Bull Durham — ” his chief of staff began.

“Yeah, yeah,” Barr said. He knew that part.

“I’ll just say it again,” Barr told me, reverting to a practiced answer. “I don’t pay attention to the tweets. If he has something to say to me, he’ll say it to me directly.”

*This article appears in the December 9, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!