Attorney General William Barr has been on the job for just 10 weeks, but in the short time he has led the Justice Department, he has already managed to put his stamp on the place.
In the long run, Barr’s tenure may be judged by his handling of the special counsel report on Russian election interference — a performance that a book reviewer at The New York Times recently likened to a “velvet fog.”
The attorney general picked up the leitmotif used by President Trump all along in the Russia investigation: “No collusion.”
Democrats in Congress were blunt: They’re accusing Barr of misleading people about special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions and acting as a defense attorney for President Trump, not the top legal officer of the United States.
But when Barr testifies Wednesday before the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is likely to try to help the attorney general turn the page on that story.
Graham has signaled he wants Justice Department leaders to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, which Barr recently said involved “spying” on the Trump campaign.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will likely give Barr a much frostier welcome when the attorney general appears before that panel on Thursday — if negotiators can agree upon the terms under which Barr would testify.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who’s running for president, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that she thought the attorney general has a great deal of ground to cover with Congress.
“This isn’t just about the Mueller report and what’s happening with Russia,” Klobuchar said.
“This is about what’s going on with immigration, this is about what’s happening with the Affordable Care Act, where millions and millions of Americans — over 50 percent of them — are afraid they’re going to lose their coverage because of preexisting conditions. [Barr] has to come before the Congress and explain what in the world this administration is doing when it comes to people’s everyday lives.”
An examination of Barr’s record so far demonstrates where he wants to take the department on some of those other priorities.
Earlier this month, Barr issued an order that could keep thousands of asylum-seekers in detention while they wait for their cases to be heard in immigration courts.
Barr exercised his prerogative as attorney general to overturn a 2005 policy that applies to people who argue they face a “credible fear of torture or persecution” if they’re returned to their country of origin.
The move follows other hard-line measures the Trump administration has adopted to try to deter undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S.
The Barr Justice Department also recently issued a report on the “number of aliens in federal, state and local custody” following a 2017 executive order signed by President Trump.
The report said nearly half of the undocumented immigrants in Bureau of Prisons custody committed drug trafficking or drug-related crimes. About 4% committed weapons offenses and 3% were convicted of racketeering or “continuing criminal enterprise offenses,” which include murders-for-hire.
In recent weeks, federal prosecutors have announced a number of new cases against medical professionals and corporate executives who allegedly fueled the opioid crisis.
First came a sweep that ensnared nearly 60 doctors, pharmacists and others who operated in hard-hit areas in Appalachia. Those cases involve more than 350,000 prescriptions for controlled substances and more than 32 million pills — the equivalent of a dose of opioids for “every man, woman and child,” across Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia.
Next, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York charged a drug distribution company and its former chief executive with conspiracy to distribute controlled narcotics for invalid medical reasons and conspiracy to defraud the United States.
The former CEO, Laurence Doud III, is fighting the charges.
In a rare note of dissension with the White House, Attorney General Barr disagreed with the president’s decision to abandon defending part of the Affordable Care Act, the signature domestic policy of the Obama administration.
But even though Barr and White House lawyers privately expressed skepticism about whether the Trump approach would win in court, the attorney general did not publicly contradict the Trump view or threaten to resign in opposition.
Health care policy expert Julie Rovner told NPR’s Weekend Edition last month that the DOJ approach “does certainly raise the prospect of a court decision that would say there could be no more protections for people with preexisting conditions. That’s one of the most popular parts of the health law.”
Like the president he serves, the attorney general has seemed comfortable with rhetoric that borders on the confrontational — and he doesn’t like to back down.
For example, after Barr said there was “spying” on the Trump campaign at a congressional hearing this year, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii offered him the opportunity to rephrase his remarks. Barr shrugged it off.
And after criticism built over his four-page letter to lawmakers that contained the “principal conclusions” of the special counsel, Barr largely deflected by turning attention on the questions themselves.
“I’m not sure what your basis is for saying I’m being generous to the president,” Barr told a reporter.