Washington – Gathered in the small assembly hall in Little Rock, Arkansas, their chairs spaced 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart, the business leaders listen admiringly to the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
They ask Attorney General William Barr about elder fraud. They ask about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, about protection of federal monuments. And each thanks Barr for his devotion and service, praising him as a patriot who is working tirelessly to protect America and restore order.
But there are those who disagree. Outside, Black Lives Matter protesters approach the doors, screaming, chanting and banging on the windows. The business leaders strain to be heard over the din.
"We’ve been here an hour and now we all understand what you go through every day,” a middle-age banker tells Barr, "so thank you.”
Barr can expect this kind of praise when he appears Tuesday for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee — but only from its Republicans. To them, he is a conservative stalwart, an unflappable foe of the left and its excesses, and — most importantly — a staunch defender of President Donald Trump.
The reception from the Democrats will be closer to the hostility of Little Rock’s demonstrators.
In the course of roughly 18 months in office, the 70-year-old Barr has become inexorably linked to a norm-busting president with sagging popularity and uncertain re-election prospects.
His actions, including the investigation he launched into the Russia probe, have deepened criticism of him as Trump’s faithful protector. Democrats have suggested he should be impeached and are holding hearings into what they say is the politicization of the Justice Department under his watch.
He came to the job with the reputation of an establishment Republican, and the expectation, by some, that he would temper the behavior of an impulsive and iconoclastic president. He has not, leading some to believe he has tailored his principles to conform with Trump’s views on politics and the law.
In fact, for decades Barr has made no secret of his commitment to law and order and his support for expansive presidential power. Those views have married neatly with a president who has repeatedly tested the limits of executive authority, a pairing that has benefited both men and perhaps allowed Barr to let down his hair more than ever before.
The people who know him insist that Barr is just being Barr — that he is not motivated by ambition or anything other than the opportunity to put his heartfelt beliefs into practice.
"He doesn’t have anything to prove from a professional or career standpoint,” said his longtime colleague and friend, attorney Chuck Cooper. "He’s been at the apex of the legal profession for a long time. And so, in that respect, he’s unlike any other attorney general. He’s already ascended to that pinnacle once before.”
Second time around
Only one other attorney general has served two nonconsecutive terms — John J. Crittenden, who held the job under presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler and later Millard Fillmore in the 19th century. Barr’s first stint was from 1991 to 1993, under President George H.W. Bush.
He first encountered Bush, then director of the CIA, when Barr was working for the intelligence agency’s legislative counsel while attending law school. Bush was testifying before Congress against a proposal to notify people whose mail had been read by the CIA.
Barr would recall, in an oral history for the University of Virginia: "Someone asked him a question, and he leaned back and said, ‘How the hell do I answer this one?’ I whispered the answer in his ear, and he gave it, and I thought: ‘Who is this guy? He listens to legal advice when it’s given.’”
Clearly, he liked having the ear of the powerful.
The devoutly Catholic son of the headmaster at a prep school, Barr had an upper-class, New York City upbringing: parochial elementary school, then storied Horace Mann prep school, and on to Columbia University and George Washington University for law.
He was conservative from a young age. It is often noted that as a kindergartner, he gave a speech for Dwight Eisenhower. He announced he was supporting Richard Nixon in his Roman Catholic elementary school and a nun took him aside and promised to pray for him. He told a high school counselor he wanted to run the CIA.
But he did not stay at the CIA. He held a clerkship with a U.S. Court of Appeals judge on the D.C. circuit, then went into private practice — though he kept a toe in the political world, working on candidate vetting, among other things. He served in the Reagan White House for more than a year.
Then, when Bush was elected, Barr joined the Justice Department — first as assistant attorney general of the Office of Legal Counsel, then as deputy attorney general, and finally as attorney general.
Even then, his views of executive power were expansive: He advised George H.W. Bush’s administration that congressional authorization was not needed to attack Iraq but said a resolution of support would be helpful, nonetheless. He blessed Bush’s desire to pardon Reagan administration officials in the Iran-Contra scandal as within the president’s authority, and provided legal justification for the Bush administration to invade Panama and arrest Manuel Noriega.
His post-government career included a string of lucrative private-sector legal jobs — including general counsel for Verizon Communications and attorney for the Caterpillar construction equipment company — until he answered Donald Trump’s call to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
Barr arrived at his confirmation hearings with credentials as a member of more mainstream, and conventional, Republican circles than Trump. He was seen as a reasonable choice to restore normalcy to an agency riven with tumult, including an attorney general whose recusal from the Russia investigation left him openly and publicly despised by the president.
Despite early indications of an askance view of the Russia investigation — he authored a memo months before his nomination critical of special counsel Robert Mueller’s efforts — he struck a soothing note at his confirmation hearing.
Mueller would of course be permitted to finish his work, he said. A president who offered a pardon in exchange for the concealment of incriminating information may well be committing obstruction, Barr said. And a nominee who had proposed names other than his own for the job reassured the Senate that, as someone already near the end of his career, he had no need to curry favor with the president.
He was confirmed 54-45, mostly along party lines.
But that support began to erode weeks later after he cleared Trump of obstruction of justice allegations even when Mueller and his team had pointedly declined to do the same, and after he produced a summary letter of Mueller’s investigation that painted a more flattering portrait for the president than the special counsel had done.
He’s since initiated an investigation of the Russia probe that Trump supporters have embraced, but that Democrats see as vindictive and backward-looking.
"In his confirmation hearing, I came in with an open mind, especially because a series of people who’d previously served with him in the DOJ, a long time ago, had reached out to me to say they believed he was committed to the rule of law and would be a good attorney general,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons. "But I have become more and more concerned about his priorities, and his leadership as the months have gone on.”
Barr’s supporters and friends describe him as unmoved by the criticism, committed to actions that he sees as appropriate and proper regardless of what anyone thinks.
"Nobody likes criticism, but Bill is one of those folks who follows his own path and is self-confident enough that he believes he’s doing the right thing in each case. I think he’s less affected by public criticism than some. I would compare him to someone like Justice Scalia,” said Andrew McBride, a Washington lawyer and longtime Barr friend.
Which is a good thing for Barr, because in his second term as AG he has faced far more criticism than he did in his first. And as Barr often jokes, he’s far more recognizable now than he was in the 1990s; he’s even been stopped in European bars for selfies.
He sought leniency in the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone — his idea alone, he insists, and a "righteous decision based on the merits.” The move promoted angry dissent in the Justice Department and the swift resignation of a well-regarded prosecutor, and though the judge did impose a sentence shorter than what the trial team had sought, Trump commuted the sentence anyway.
He also moved to dismiss the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, a request the Justice Department expected would be simple but that has instead produced a pitched fight before a federal appeals court.
He tried to fire the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, but that didn’t go precisely as planned when U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman refused to step aside, leaving Berman’s deputy in his place instead of the prosecutor Barr had selected to replace him.
The actions have resulted in open letters signed by thousands of Justice Department alumni who have demanded Barr’s resignation.
They’ve also reinforced criticism that he is facilitating the vision of a president who has shown little regards for the historic norms that have for decades guided the relationship between the White House and the Justice Department, chief among them that law enforcement operates independent of politics when it comes to cases and matters.
Trump and Barr have broken on occasion: Trump wanted a full-on prosecution of players in the Russia probe, like Andrew McCabe, and bristled when Barr asked him to stop tweeting about Stone, saying that the tweets were making it impossible to do his job.
But largely, Barr has delivered, Trump has told confidants, including when he moved to drop the Flynn prosecution and ousted Berman.
And it was Barr, acting on the president’s "law and order” pledge, who stood in Washington's Lafayette Square last month before law enforcement cleared the street of demonstrators at the height of the George Floyd protests. A short time later, he stood just a few feet away as the president held a Bible aloft outside St. John’s Church, creating one of the defining — and, as it turned out, politically damaging — moments of his presidency.
Barr fancies himself a lawman’s lawman. While sheriffs and even many rank-and-file officers adore him, after all these years he doesn’t quite fit in with the blue-collar world of the working-class cop.
Just before Christmas, Barr visited New York’s One Police Plaza to meet with New York Police Department brass after a series of suicides among New York police officers. Later that night, he hosted a thank-you dinner for hundreds of officers. The NYPD sent two officers from each precinct, along with some chiefs, the NYPD’s commissioner and his chief deputy.
As the officers streamed into the Queens catering hall, bagpipes played in the background. (Barr is a competitive bagpipe player, though he also rocks out to Shakira.)
The officers were offered drinks. But they were in uniform — Barr didn’t realize that they were not allowed alcohol. Barr apologized and told them to eat up. He paid the bill — well over $10,000 — out of his own pocket, handing the owner his credit card.
Barr has devoted numerous speeches to discussing restoring the rule of law in America. A signature line: There is no more noble profession than being a law enforcement officer. Even as the nation engages in a growing conversation about police reform, Barr has loudly cautioned that going too far — allowing the pendulum to swing all the way — would be detrimental.
Earlier this month, Barr flew to South Carolina and Arkansas to meet with police officials and community leaders. At a predominantly African American church, community leaders told him they didn’t want to "defund” the police. The officers in their communities needed more training and better resources. Police officials shared the same views.
Barr has said he recognizes there is racism in the U.S., and that there’s reason for some communities to be more suspicious of law enforcement than others, but he doesn’t think that the system is systemically racist.
"Like all power, it can be abused. And people just sort of act like it is an either-or situation, it’s all about abuse or, you know, beat the Iron Fist,” Barr said in an interview.
Instead, he believes it is incumbent upon the government to ensure there are adequate policies in place to protect against abuse and that officers have proper training. But going too far and pushing to defund or disband police departments or moving quickly to bring criminal charges against police officers without robust investigations is likely to lead to a mass exodus of officers, he argues.
The demonstrations happening across the country aren’t a totally new phenomenon for Barr, and George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer is reminiscent of a major civil rights investigation he handled in his first stint as attorney general — the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.
When a state jury acquitted three officers, and failed to reach a verdict on a fourth, it was the Barr Justice Department that brought federal charges in the case, leading to convictions of two officers.
Trump's personal lawyer
Barr is one of the most hands-on attorneys general the nation has ever seen. He often digs into the minutia of cases or pressing investigations and demands briefings, sometimes every half hour.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill have accused Barr of acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than America’s chief law enforcement officer. For Barr, that’s a criticism easily shrugged off.
"I dismiss it because like many other talking points these days, there’s never any actual particular matter presented to support it, so I ignore it as just part of the general background noise,” Barr said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
But the criticism isn’t limited to congressional Democrats. Many former federal prosecutors have puzzled over actions that they see as breaking against Justice Department convention and tilting in the favor of Trump allies, including his push to drop the prosecution of a former adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty.
Like Trump, he believes there must be a thorough investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency, even as Democrats decry those probes as politically motivated. What seems "to upset them is that I am dead set on making sure we get to the bottom of what happened during the 2016 election period,” he said.
He points to the Justice Department inspector general’s report that found flaws in how the FBI’s Russia investigation was conducted. Despite the problems the watchdog office identified, it nonetheless determined that the FBI had a legitimate basis to launch a full investigation – a finding Barr disagrees with – and that the probe was not motivated by political bias.
At the end of the day, Barr insists his most controversial decisions have been right and just.
"I think the only way to handle this kind of job, especially in the kind of environment we are in, is to just put one foot in front of the other, and every time a decision is brought to you, you make a decision and walk away with a clear conscience,” Barr said.