U.S. Attorney General William Barr abruptly resigned this week, capping a controversial tenure during which he was applauded by Republicans for restoring the rule of law and excoriated by critics for acting more like President Donald Trump’s personal attorney than the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Trump announced Barr’s resignation Monday on Twitter, writing that the 70-year-old attorney general will be stepping down on December 23, a little less than two years after the president tapped him to replace his first, ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Controversy over Barr’s 22 months at the helm of the Justice Department, the second time he has held the position, continued to dog him this week as his Republican supporters and Democratic critics on Capitol Hill reacted to the news of his resignation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised him for his commitment to the rule of law, writing in a statement that Barr “stood for the simple but apparently the controversial proposition that the federal government should actually enforce the laws on the books.”
“Now, for a second-time attorney general, Barr will leave the Department and the rule of law in this country stronger than he found them,” McConnell wrote. Barr had previously served as attorney general in the administration of the late President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s.
But Democrats, some of whom have previously called for Barr’s impeachment over his alleged disregard for the law, accused him of politicizing the Justice Department and doing the president’s bidding.
“Whomever Joe Biden chooses as the new Attorney General will have a tremendous amount of work to do to repair the integrity of the Department of Justice,” Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said in a statement.
President-elect Biden is expected to announce his attorney general pick, the last of his “Big Four” appointments, in the coming days.
When Trump tapped Barr as his second attorney general in December 2019, few foresaw his controversial tenure. Unlike Sessions, Barr was not a politician. As a highly regarded lawyer and veteran of the department, he was widely expected to shield the law enforcement agency from political interference and Trump’s attacks.
Paul Rosenzweig, a former Justice Department official now with the R Street Institute, a libertarian and conservative think tank, said he shared that initial view of Barr.
“I thought that he would restore integrity to the Department of Justice and like many other lawyers I’m bitterly disappointed,” Rosenzweig said in an interview. “I don’t know whether I misjudged him, or he changed.”
Barr’s term took a controversial turn almost from the start as he emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest defenders against what he has called a “bogus” FBI investigation of suspected ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.
Weeks into his tenure, after Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report to Barr in March 2019, the attorney general quickly sent Congress a brief summary that critics said distorted its contents and concluded that Trump did not obstruct justice. This allowed the president to claim vindication. Barr later released a slightly redacted version of the full report and vigorously denied he had misled lawmakers.
The controversy did not stop there. In the months that followed, Barr was denounced for suggesting that the Trump campaign had been spied upon and tapping a prosecutor to probe the Russian investigation. He drew further criticism for interfering in the prosecution of two Trump associates indicted by Mueller — Roger Stone and Michael Flynn — and in June ordering federal agents to disperse protesters outside the White House so Trump could walk across the street for a photo-op.
Rosenzweig said Barr’s efforts on behalf of Trump undermined the Justice Department’s post-Watergate tradition of independence and demoralized the agency rank and file. In February 2020, after Barr overruled prosecutors’ recommendation of a lengthy sentence for Stone, more than 1,000 former DOJ officials called for his resignation.
‘The people’s Justice Department’
To restore trust in the Justice Department, what is needed is a return to “the playbook of the past half-century,” former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer, a Republican, wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today on Monday.
“The Biden administration’s immediate task is putting on the field a DOJ that can command public trust because it obviously deserves it,” Ayer wrote.
Biden has said he plans to do just that. In a December 2 interview with CNN, Biden said the Justice Department under his watch will be independent.
“I’m not going to be telling them what they have to do and don’t have to do,” Biden said. “I’m not going to be saying, ‘go prosecute A, B or C’, I’m not going to be telling them. That’s not the role, it’s not my Justice Department, it’s the people’s Justice Department.”
His attorney general will “have the independent capacity to decide who gets prosecuted who doesn’t,” Biden said.
Leading contenders for the top Justice Department job reportedly include outgoing Democratic Senator and longtime Biden friend Doug Jones.
Rosenzweig said the future attorney general has their work cut out for them. “He’s got to restore the culture, review what has happened before, change procedures, and institute rules that make it harder, for example for political interference,” Rosenzweig said. “It’s not an easy task.”
Support for Barr
Barr’s defenders say the attorney general has stood up for the department’s independence. In February, Barr said in an interview with ABC News he was “not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the president.” In May, when Trump and Republicans attacked FBI director Christopher Wray over the Russia investigation, Barr expressed confidence in Wray.
“He stood up for Chris Wray and said that he thought that Chris Wray was doing a good job,” said John Malcolm, a former federal prosecutor now the vice president of Institute for Constitutional Government at the Heritage Foundation. “I think that Bill Barr was an independent voice.”
In the lead-up to the November 3 election, Barr kept the Justice Department out of campaign politics, preventing an investigation into Hunter Biden’s taxes from becoming public and resisting pressure from Trump to release a report on special prosecutor John Durham’s findings, Malcolm said. Then on December 1, Barr, contradicting Trump, said in an interview with the Associated Press that he had found no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.