Attorney General Barr, Only Weeks Into Job, Makes A Mark Under The Spotlight

Apr 30, 2019
Originally published on April 30, 2019 8:32 pm

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.

Immigration

In Ixtepec, Mexico, Central American migrants ride a freight train on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border on April 23.
Moises Castillo / AP

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.

Opioids

Health officials this month warned doctors not to abruptly stop prescribing opioid painkillers to patients who are taking them for chronic pain ailments, such as back pain.
Mark Lennihan / AP

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.

Health care

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."

Style

Attorney General Barr speaks to President Trump before the first veto of his presidency in the Oval Office of the White House on March 15.
Evan Vucci / AP

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.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Attorney General William Barr has only been on the job for 10 weeks, but he's already left a big impression mostly because of how he handled the Russia investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

WILLIAM BARR: There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.

CORNISH: This week, the Attorney General heads to Congress for the first time since that special counsel report became public. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the AG's handling of this matter. She's in the studio now. Welcome, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Remind us what the expectations were for the Justice Department under Barr and then how that's actually played out.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Bill Barr had served as attorney general once before at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration. He was viewed as highly qualified, a bright guy, a steady hand at the Justice Department. But Senate Democrats at the time had some reservations about his really sweeping views of executive power and what that would mean under a President like Donald Trump, who likes to break the china.

It turns out Barr has been a very vocal defender of this president, saying several times in that news conference earlier this month that there was no collusion, which was Trump's messaging. And the special counsel finding, once we finally read it, was not quite so clear. The special counsel said there wasn't enough admissible evidence to prosecute, not no evidence of conspiracy at all, between Trump campaign aides and Russians.

CORNISH: The attorney general also concluded that the president would not face charges for obstruction of justice. How much will that come up in his Senate hearing?

JOHNSON: It's certainly a message that Democrats are going to try to advance this week. They believe that this issue of obstruction was specifically left open for Congress to decide. But if Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham has his way, this hearing tomorrow is going to focus on the origins of the Russia investigation - investigating the investigators. That's what Attorney General Barr has called spying on the Trump campaign. But it's hard to see how Barr will duck some hot questions on his handling of the special counsel probe. Remember; he's still fighting with the House Judiciary panel about whether he's even going to show up there later this week and under what conditions.

CORNISH: There's been so much focus on Russia and the Mueller report. What else has been on Bill Barr's agenda?

JOHNSON: You know, kind of a lot. He's been very tough on immigration. He's been trying to make it basically much harder for people seeking asylum, making it clear that they will have to remain in detention during the long wait for a court hearing. On opioids, the Justice Department has been cracking down on doctors who prescribe opioids for nonmedical reasons.

And then there's also health care. The Justice Department is declining to defend the Affordable Care Act. That's President Obama's signature health care law. Democrats and even some Republicans are worried about what will happen to people with pre-existing conditions if that law goes away.

CORNISH: Finally, before we let you go, there's some news this week on the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. What's the latest?

JOHNSON: Audie, it seems like there's always some drama over at the Justice Department lately. Rod Rosenstein has submitted his letter of resignation to the president as of this week. Now, that was expected after Bill Barr came on board, and the new AG gets to pick his next deputy.

Rosenstein had planned to see the Russia investigation through, make sure that that was done and then take off. And that's, in fact, the plan. That's what happened. Rosenstein says his last day will be May 11. That seems to be leaving enough time for the Senate to vote on his successor, Jeffrey Rosen. He's a veteran of the same law firm where the attorney general, Bill Barr, worked for a long time.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTICE'S "VALENTINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.