WASHINGTON – With his avuncular, soft-spoken manner, Bill Barr comes across as an unassuming bureaucrat but the U.S. attorney general has emerged as a powerful defender of Donald Trump and the ultra-conservative right.
The 69-year-old lawyer has come out in support of sweeping powers for the chief executive and decried the threat to religion and traditional values of “militant secularists.”
Three Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans in approving Barr’s nomination when he was named in February to replace former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Having already headed the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, Barr was seen as a potential steady and experienced hand in an administration roiled by turmoil.
That didn’t last long.
Barr sparked outrage in March when he delayed the release of a federal report into Russian interference in the 2016 election — instead offering his own summary which critics felt had underplayed the Trump campaign’s involvement while clearing the president of obstruction.
The report’s author, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, was so perturbed by Barr’s interpretation of its conclusions that he wrote to the attorney general accusing him of sowing “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”
Barr’s full-throated backing of Trump has earned him the moniker of the “president’s attorney” from critics.
This week, he took issue with a report by the Justice Department’s own inspector general into the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation.
The report concluded that political bias against Trump did not drive the FBI investigation — rebutting the president’s claims that the FBI had illegally spied on his campaign.
The DOJ inspector general found numerous procedural errors in the handling of the probe, but said the investigation was justified.
Barr dismissed the conclusions telling NBC News Trump’s campaign was the victim of a “completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by an irresponsible press.”
His comments earned a rebuke from former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump.
“Unfortunately, it appears that Barr will continue his practice of deriding the Justice Department when the facts don’t agree with Trump’s fiction,” Comey said in The Washington Post.
“As the leader of an institution that is supposed to be devoted to truth, Barr needs to stop acting like a Trump spokesperson.”
Barr’s backers argue that the George Washington University law school graduate is not defending Trump but the powers of the presidency.
Barr outlined his thoughts in a speech in Washington in November.
“Unfortunately, over the past several decades, we have seen steady encroachment on presidential authority by the other branches of government,” he said.
“In waging a scorched earth, no-holds-barred war of ‘resistance’ against this administration, it is the Left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law,” Barr said.
A devout Catholic, Barr railed against “secularists” in a speech the previous month at the University of Notre Dame, claiming they were engaged in a campaign of “organized destruction.”
“Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values,” he said.
In December, Barr stoked more controversy by claiming that American communities that do not give law enforcement “the respect and support” they deserve “might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
His comments were seen as a veiled reference to the Black Lives Matter movement condemning police brutality against African-Americans.
Jeffery Robinson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality, took issue with his remarks.
“Support and respect are earned, not given as the result of a demand from those who carry badges and guns,” Robinson said.
Last week, Barr suffered a setback when the Supreme Court — at least temporarily — rejected his bid to resume federal executions, the last of which was carried out in 2003.
Barr has remained sanguine in the face of criticism.
“The only people who should be attorney general are too young to know the risk or too old to care,” he said in an interview on Tuesday with The Wall Street Journal.