WASHINGTON — Soon after he undercut President Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in early December, Attorney General William P. Barr’s time atop the Justice Department hurtled to its finish. The president and his allies attacked Mr. Barr in private and non-private, making clear that he ought to retract his evaluation or spend the final weeks of the administration belittled and probably fired in humiliating style.
Mr. Barr set to work on a face-saving exit plan, in response to folks accustomed to his efforts. He and allies started back-channel communications with the White House to gauge his probabilities at an amicable parting, and he spent a weekend writing a letter that might announce his departure whereas preserving his relationship with the president.
The effort succeeded in permitting Mr. Barr to go away largely on his phrases. Mr. Trump heaped reward on Mr. Barr in asserting his exit, and the lawyer common returned the favor, blurring the truth that he had been all however pushed out.
The orchestrated farewell was a reflection of how Mr. Barr navigated his tenure working a Justice Department for a president who considered it as hostile towards him. Mr. Barr’s time was largely outlined by the notion that he put aside the division’s independence to advance the president’s political and private pursuits, mainly by undermining its personal investigation into Russia and the Trump marketing campaign and by wading into marketing campaign points, together with enjoying up fears of voter fraud.
But Mr. Barr additionally confirmed flashes of autonomy on the finish of his tenure. His reversal on voter fraud broke from the president. He mentioned he noticed no want for a particular counsel to analyze President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son Hunter as Mr. Trump clamored for one. And Mr. Barr even acknowledged that a few of his suspicions concerning the Obama administration’s examination of Russian election interference have been misguided.
Historians will debate whether or not Mr. Barr, 70, was attempting to protect his popularity. Already a polarizing determine, he had confronted a new groundswell of criticism in current weeks for relieving restrictions on election-related investigations as Mr. Trump ramped up his complaints about voting irregularities and for guaranteeing that the division’s examination of the Russia investigation continues into the Biden administration.
Mr. Barr’s allies say he merely adopted his instincts, honed by his maximalist view of govt energy, and was untroubled by perceptions that he was serving Mr. Trump’s private agenda.
Either method, an examination of Mr. Barr’s tenure, based mostly on interviews with allies, critics, present and former legislation enforcement officers and lecturers, reveals that it doesn’t matter what Mr. Barr says or does, Mr. Trump will finally outline his legacy as lawyer common.
“Bill Barr will be inexorably tied to Donald Trump,” mentioned Nancy Baker, a political scientist who research attorneys common and interviewed Mr. Barr for an oral historical past mission by the Miller Center on the University of Virginia. While administration critics credited Mr. Barr for refuting Mr. Trump’s false election assertions, finally, she mentioned, “he will always be Trump’s guy.”
Mr. Barr, who left the job final week, mentioned at his last information convention that he accepted the submit as a result of he felt he may assist the division throughout a fraught interval.
“I knew I was signing up for a difficult assignment in this department. As I’ve said, there were rough times,” mentioned Mr. Barr, who declined to reply questions for this text. “I don’t regret coming in because I think it’s always an honor to serve the nation.”
When Mr. Barr, who had been lawyer common through the first Bush administration, returned to the workplace early final yr, some Trump critics considered his expertise as a potential examine on the president. But his personal report confirmed that Mr. Barr regarded presidential energy as broad, and Mr. Trump supplied a likelihood to revive what Mr. Barr noticed as govt authority misplaced within the post-Watergate period.
“As a cabinet member, the attorney general was supportive of the administration and many of its priorities. He was unfairly criticized for that,” mentioned Brian Rabbitt, his former chief of employees and the outgoing head of the Justice Department’s prison division. “But you don’t take a job like his to resist. You take the job to help the administration.”
Mr. Barr was enthusiastic about points together with increasing spiritual freedoms and supporting Native American reservations and tribal legislation enforcement workplaces, former colleagues mentioned, and he largely continued his Bush-era battle in opposition to medicine, violent crime and what he deemed to be politically motivated prosecutions.
That work was eclipsed by the Russia investigation, which each he and Mr. Trump believed represented an abuse of energy by the F.B.I.
“He had a vigilante attitude toward the Russia investigation — ‘I alone will fix this,’” mentioned Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School who research the historical past and ethics of the authorized career.
After his February 2019 affirmation, Mr. Barr launched into what division officers mentioned was a single-minded mission to reveal any wrongdoing by investigators.
Mr. Barr started by reshaping the general public’s notion of essentially the most politically charged investigation in a era in the absolute best gentle for Mr. Trump. He went on to border it as a political cudgel used to “sabotage” Mr. Trump’s presidency, even after the Justice Department’s inspector common concluded in any other case. “Prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,” Mr. Barr said this fall. He said in his last days in workplace that the investigators for the particular counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, have been too biased to reveal F.B.I. wrongdoing.
Mr. Barr went past speak, tapping John H. Durham, the U.S. lawyer in Connecticut, to open a prison investigation into the origins of the Russia inquiry. Mr. Barr talked up Mr. Durham’s work within the months earlier than the election, flouting Justice Department norms to keep away from publicly discussing ongoing prison investigations as Mr. Trump promoted the inquiry as sure to show a “deep state” plot in opposition to him.
“He had a blind spot on Russia,” Ms. Baker mentioned of Mr. Barr. “Blind to the fact that he acted politically in his treatment of the Russia investigation, even if in his mind he acted out of his belief that his actions were consistent with the rule of law.”
After the election, amid a storm of complaints from Mr. Trump’s allies that Mr. Durham had not revealed data that might have helped the president, Mr. Barr downplayed expectations that he would expose prison acts. He told a Wall Street Journal opinion columnist that by focusing solely on indictments, the political class excuses different contemptible habits.
And although in the identical interview he backed off his suspicions of the C.I.A.’s examination of Russian election interference in 2016, he additionally confirmed Mr. Durham was nonetheless reviewing the 2017 intelligence group evaluation about Russian election interference.
Inside the Justice Department, the turning level got here with Mr. Barr’s interventions in two high-profile circumstances stemming from the Russia inquiry, these of Mr. Trump’s longtime good friend Roger J. Stone Jr. and his former nationwide safety adviser Michael T. Flynn. Some prosecutors withdrew from the circumstances. Just a few left the division fully. A sometimes discreet work drive started to name for Mr. Barr’s resignation and accuse him of turning the division “into a shield to protect the president” and a device for Mr. Trump to settle political scores.
Mr. Barr rebuffed these allegations, publicly rebuking Mr. Trump for opining on the Stone case. Former aides mentioned Mr. Barr was conveying the message to each Mr. Trump and federal prosecutors that he acts based mostly on his convictions, not politics.
But Mr. Barr’s interventions in ways in which benefited Mr. Trump prolonged past the particular counsel investigation. Examining Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that prompted impeachment, the Justice Department shortly decided he had not dedicated a marketing campaign finance crime, nicely earlier than the president’s broad efforts to strain Kyiv got here into focus.
The division additionally took on lawsuits over books written by Trump adversaries. In the case of the previous nationwide safety adviser John R. Bolton, who had fallen out of Mr. Trump’s favor, it opened a prison inquiry into whether or not he illegally disclosed categorized data.
Being a profitable lawyer common “is not just about doing the right thing, it’s about preserving the legitimacy of the institution,” Ms. Roiphe mentioned. “Even if he honestly held these beliefs, he addressed them in ways that were only respected by his own political followers.”
Some Justice Department officers believed that Mr. Barr privately honed the president’s perception that his lawyer common was his political fixer and used that capital with Mr. Trump to guard the division, shielding it from blowback when it prosecuted circumstances that interfered in commerce negotiations with China and to guard the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, from being fired over the president’s animosity towards the bureau.
Buffeted by assault, Mr. Barr saved an unusually small inside circle of aides and relied on them, quite than the heads of the division’s divisions, for recommendation, in response to former officers.
Mr. Barr appeared to scorn enter from elsewhere within the division, significantly from the profession employees, as pointless noise that slowed down his quick deliberative course of, former officers mentioned.
Mr. Barr made his low opinion clear in a speech this yr, saying that no profitable organizations deemed choices by low-level staff “sacrosanct” or deferred to “whatever those subordinates want to do.”
But he appeared blindsided by a string of miscues earlier this yr, mainly his management of the federal response to this yr’s nationwide protests over racial injustice. Mr. Barr got here beneath hearth for ordering federal officers to clear a park close to the White House in June simply earlier than Mr. Trump’s extensively criticized photograph op outdoors a church. Frustrating some within the White House, he additionally contradicted Mr. Trump’s rationalization for sheltering in a bunker throughout protests.
And later that month, Mr. Trump distanced himself virtually instantly from Mr. Barr’s dismissal of the highest federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
In his last weeks, Mr. Barr started to see Mr. Trump’s agenda, which he supported, as separate from the president himself and his private shortcomings, like his refusal to simply accept the outcomes of the election, associates mentioned.
Mr. Barr accepted Mr. Biden’s win and mentioned no quantity of fraud he had seen would overturn it. He had already resisted Mr. Trump’s strain late within the marketing campaign to prosecute Democrats.
He additionally saved quiet the doubtless explosive information that Hunter Biden was beneath prison investigation. Disclosing that, associates mentioned, may have undermined a future Biden presidency, an act Mr. Barr noticed as a potential echo of the investigation opened 4 years earlier into Mr. Trump.