Attorney General William Barr’s time leading the U.S. Justice Department ended much as it played out during his nearly two years there: with a combination of vocal obeisance to President Donald Trump, a note of indignity and the constant background noise of controversy.
Trump announced on Dec. 14 that Barr will leave his post before the end of the year, days after calling the nation’s top law enforcement official “a big disappointment.”
“Just had a very nice meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr at the White House,” Trump tweeted. “Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job! As per letter, Bill will be leaving just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family.”
According to a letter from Barr that Trump posted in a subsequent tweet, the Attorney General’s last day will be Dec. 23. Trump made the announcement on Twitter minutes after the Electoral College vote count put President-elect Joe Biden above the 270 votes needed to win the presidency.
Barr presided over some of the most consequential moments of Trump’s presidency and most tumultuous periods for the Justice Department during the term. When Barr was confirmed to the post in February 2019 to replace Jeff Sessions, many Democrats hoped he would be a strong institutionalist who would resist Trump’s encroachment into DOJ business. And Barr wanted to help lead a department he felt had gone astray—he viewed the job as “an opportunity” to “preserve and enhance the reputation of the department,” Rod Rosenstein, who was serving as Deputy Attorney General when Barr took over, told TIME shortly after Barr was confirmed.
But over the course of his nearly two years on the job—his second time holding the position, after also serving as attorney general under George H.W. Bush—Barr emerged as a staunch defender of the President, making a series of decisions that protected Trump at key moments in his presidency and that many felt eroded the very appearance of political independence at the department that he had said he wanted to defend.
In his farewell letter that Trump posted to Twitter, Barr defended the President, writing of the “partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.”
In March 2019, just over one month after Barr became Attorney General, special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his final report to Barr after a multi-year investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and whether President Trump had obstructed justice. A quirk in Justice Department rules meant Barr had almost sole discretion over what to do with Mueller’s report, and his decision ended up enraging his critics and proving his loyalty to Trump. Barr publicized his summary of Mueller’s report before releasing the report itself, which had the effect of oversimplifying Mueller’s findings, at least in the minds of Mueller and his deputies.
Barr said Mueller had not found evidence of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia, which was correct, but he echoed the Trumpian phrase “no collusion” when he gave a press conference about the report. And while Mueller had declined to reach a conclusion about whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr said the President had not. (Barr obliquely referenced some of the substance of Mueller’s investigation in his resignation letter, mentioning “the effort to cripple, if not oust, your Administration with frenzied and baseless accusations of collusion with Russia.”)
Barr endeared himself to Trump in other ways, saying that he believes the FBI investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia was based “on the thinnest of suspicions that… were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” and that he believes “spying” occurred on Trump’s campaign, even as others in his own department publicly disagreed. He appointed Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to undertake a highly secretive investigation into the origins of the probe, which is ongoing.
Barr sometimes took a personal role in cases of interest to the President. In February 2020, he intervened and overruled line prosecutors to lessen the recommended sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone, who had been convicted on multiple counts— including witness tampering and lying to investigators—in a case stemming from Mueller’s investigation. The decision was made public after Trump had tweeted that the Stone case was a “miscarriage of justice,” tipping off a crisis for Barr and the first public rift between him and the President.
Amid growing calls for him to resign, Barr said Trump’s tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job,” calling them “constant background commentary that undercuts me.” Trump was sanguine at the time, saying he retained full confidence in Barr, but acknowledging, “I do make his job harder.” Months later, the Justice Department dropped its criminal case against Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. (Trump then pardoned Flynn.)
But the relationship between Trump and his Attorney General hit more bumps as 2020 wore on. Durham never released any findings before the presidential election, as Trump had been hoping for. And while Trump and his legal team have engaged in a multi-week legal and public relations effort to overturn or at least cast doubt on the integrity of Biden’s victory, Barr said on Dec. 1 that the Justice Department had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election” in a major public break with the President.
Not long after, it was also revealed that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Delaware has been investigating Biden’s son Hunter’s “tax affairs,” according to a statement by Hunter Biden. After the Wall Street Journal reported that Barr had known about the investigation for months and worked to keep it under wraps during the election year, Trump tweeted Barr was “a big disappointment” and questioned: “Why didn’t Bill Barr reveal the truth to the public, before the Election, about Hunter Biden.”
Trump wrote in his tweet announcing Barr’s departure that their relationship had been “very good,” but it came just two days after the “disappointment” tweet.
Barr, 70, may now return to the easier life he had been enjoying before he joined the Trump Administration. Barr once said that when Trump first approached him about a job in June 2017— at that time, it was about joining the President’s personal legal team—he declined, because he was happy with the work-life balance he had finally achieved in his sixties and “didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.” He seemed to know that many people don’t leave the Trump Administration on good terms with the President or with their reputations intact. After an abrupt end to his tenure in the final weeks of Trump’s time in office, he now joins that long list of former officials.
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