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How The Justice Department Has Changed Under Trump's Presidency


One of Donald Trump's first actions as president became known, if you'll recall, as the Muslim ban, and it set the stage for a dizzying four years - the wall, a trade war with China, diplomatic engagement with North Korea while withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and the WHO, an endless procession of people leaving and coming into the administration. Oh, and let's not forget to mention a special prosecutor's investigation into dealings with Russia and an impeachment over pressure on Ukraine.

As Trump makes his argument for four more years, we're taking a look at how he has upended conventions over the past four in politics, trade, journalism. And we begin with justice. Donald Trump's man at the Department of Justice is William Barr, the 85th and current attorney general of the United States. He was also the 77th.


GEORGE H W BUSH: Today, America gives new responsibilities to a young man of outstanding character and achievement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's President George H.W. Bush at the Justice Department in 1991, when he swore Barr in for the first time Barr was attorney general. He's now Donald Trump's AG. And for that, we turn to NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Hi, Carrie.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Bill Barr is only the second person to be AG twice, and he did so under very different presidents. I mean, George H.W. Bush was a very establishment Republican. Donald Trump, we all know, broke the Republican mold. So let's start with Barr's first term so we can get a sense of the man. What kind of AG was he then?

JOHNSON: I think it's important to remember that Bill Barr got this job after managing a very combustible situation as acting attorney general under President Bush. Barr performed very well in handling a prison riot in Talladega, Ala. He led an operation where all nine hostages were freed in August 1991, with no deaths after many days under siege.

And after that, he was largely seen as an establishment Republican. He focused on gun crime and violence, which is normal for an attorney general, although toward the end of the administration, he played a role in advising the White House to pardon people connected to the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, which was pretty controversial at the time. Some big names, including the defense secretary, won pardons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's fast-forward. He came in after Trump fired Jeff Sessions because he was angry at Sessions over the Mueller investigation. So how did Bill Barr present himself as a prospective attorney general?

JOHNSON: You know, Bill Barr told senators he'd been there and done that already. He didn't really need this job at his age. He said he had enough money after a lucrative corporate career, and he wanted to retire. But he said he loved the Justice Department. He wanted to help stabilize the place.

One tension, though, at the time that came up during his confirmation hearing is that he had written an unsolicited memo to the White House and the Justice Department before President Trump picked him, basically concluding that a president could not violate the obstruction of justice law by firing the FBI director. And, of course, that was a matter under investigation at the time because President Trump had fired FBI Director Jim Comey. And his critics say that should've been a signal to how his tenure as attorney general was going to go a second time.

Here's Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asking Barr a question.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: Will you commit to make public all of the report's conclusions - the Mueller report - even if some of the evidence supporting those conclusions can't be made public?

WILLIAM BARR: You know, that certainly is my goal and intent. It's hard for me to conceive of a conclusion that would, you know, run afoul of the regs as currently written. But that's certainly my intent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Might've been his intent, but let's fast-forward to the end of the Mueller investigation last year. March 24, Barr released a letter summarizing Mueller's findings that Mueller ends up calling incomplete. April 18, Barr releases a redacted version of the Mueller report and holds a press conference. This is from NPR's coverage on that day.


BARR: The special counsel found no evidence...

No collusion.

...That any American...

...By any American...


...Did not find any evidence that...

In other words, there was no evidence...

...Anyone associated...

...Of the Trump campaign collusion.

As he said from the...

...With the Russian government.

There was, in fact, no collusion.

So that's the bottom line.

JOHNSON: So, Lulu, of course, there was evidence of links and coordination in that special counsel report between Russians and people in the Trump campaign. There was even evidence that candidate Trump knew stolen emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign were coming out and that he welcomed that. But there wasn't enough proof found by the special counsel to charge anyone with conspiracy. And on the other major area of investigation, there was lots of evidence that the president may have obstructed justice, maybe most boldly by trying to fire the special counsel himself and get the White House counsel to lie about it later.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So as a matter of constitutional principle, Bill Barr believes in expansive authority for the executive. Does that explain what seems like a big difference from what he promised to do with the Mueller report and the way he acted when the time came to release it?

JOHNSON: Well, Justice Department alumna would say there's a difference between executive authority, protecting the institution of the presidency and protecting the president as a person - acting as the president's personal lawyer. And many of them would say that Barr has forgotten that distinction. We've had prosecutors quit cases this year to testify at a whistleblower hearing this past summer in Congress. And three have written public letters or op-ed pieces blasting the politicization at the Justice Department and criticizing their boss, Bill Barr, by name. That just doesn't happen in normal times at the Justice Department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're talking about justice with a capital J here, as in the Justice Department. But there's also small J justice. How does the Bill Barr that we've seen under Trump approach the greater goal of protecting the innocent and prosecuting the guilty?

JOHNSON: Well, to hear Bill Barr and his supporters tell it, he's been a law-and-order attorney general. He's stood up for the police. He's stood up for victims of crime. But there is an appearance of favoritism toward people close to the president here. I mean people like longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, who got a commuted sentence from Trump and, even before then, a back-and-forth about the sentence he should receive; also people like former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who won early release from prison during the pandemic, even though he didn't meet the criteria at the Justice Department for early release. And then there's this ongoing saga involving former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. The Justice Department is actually trying to abandon that case, even though Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Barr is 70. This is, as we've said, his second go around as AG. How unusual has this term been? And has he talked about his legacy at all, even though he's not done serving?

JOHNSON: Bill Barr says this criticism doesn't bother him, but I'm not so sure about that. He's been blasting what he calls the deceitful national media and the mob that's been out to get him. He recently said too many prosecutors act like headhunters going after targets and said they need more supervision. And he said, maybe most importantly, that history is written by the winners. By that measure, it'll be interesting to see what happens after Election Day. But inside the Justice Department and out, there's this widespread feeling that it is a very unusual time, and it has been a very unusual tenure, maybe the most unusual since the Nixon era.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.