William Pelham Barr (born May 23, 1950) is a two-time United States Attorney General. He was appointed by Donald Trump as the 85th Attorney General, and has served in that role since February 14, 2019. He had previously served in the position from 1991 to 1993, in the administration of George H. W. Bush. Before becoming Attorney General the first time, Barr held numerous other posts within the Department of Justice, including serving as Deputy Attorney General from 1990 to 1991. Barr is a longtime proponent of the unitary executive theory of unfettered presidential authority. He is a member of the Republican Party.
|77th and 85th |
United States Attorney General
|Assumed office |
February 14, 2019
Ed O'Callaghan (acting)
Jeffrey A. Rosen (nominee)
|Preceded by||Jeff Sessions|
November 26, 1991 – January 20, 1993
|President||George H. W. Bush|
|Deputy||George J. Terwilliger III|
|Preceded by||Dick Thornburgh|
|Succeeded by||Janet Reno|
|25th United States Deputy Attorney General|
May 1990 – November 26, 1991
|President||George H. W. Bush|
|Preceded by||Donald B. Ayer|
|Succeeded by||George J. Terwilliger III|
|United States Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel|
April 1989 – May 1990
|President||George H. W. Bush|
|Preceded by||Douglas Kmiec|
|Succeeded by||J. Michael Luttig|
William Pelham Barr
May 23, 1950
New York City, New York, U.S.
Christine Moynihan (m. 1973)
|Relatives||Donald Barr (Father)|
|Education||Columbia University (BA, MA)|
George Washington University (JD)
Early life and education
Barr was born in New York City in 1950. His father, Donald Barr, taught English literature at Columbia University before becoming headmaster of the Dalton School in Manhattan and later the Hackley School in Tarrytown, both members of the Ivy Preparatory School League. Barr's mother, Mary Margaret (née Ahern), also taught at Columbia. Barr's father was born Jewish but later converted to Catholicism, and Barr was raised Catholic. His mother is of Irish ancestry.
The second of four sons, he grew up on the Upper West Side, and attended a Catholic grammar school, Corpus Christi School, and then the non-sectarian Horace Mann School. After high school, Barr entered Columbia University, where he majored in government and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1971. He then did two years of graduate study at Columbia, receiving an Master of Arts in government and Chinese studies in 1973. He then attended law school at the George Washington University Law School, graduating with a Juris Doctor in 1977.
From 1973 to 1977, Barr was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Barr was a law clerk to Judge Malcolm Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1977 through 1978. He served on the domestic policy staff at the Reagan White House from May 3, 1982, to September 5, 1983, with his official title being Deputy Assistant Director for Legal Policy. He was also in private practice for nine years with the Washington law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge.
U.S. Department of Justice
In 1989, at the beginning of his administration, President George H. W. Bush appointed Barr to the U.S. Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), an office which functions as the legal advisor for the President and executive agencies. Barr was known as a strong defender of presidential power. He wrote an advisory opinion justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega. He wrote legal justifications for the practice of rendition, so that the FBI could enter onto foreign soil without the consent of the host government to apprehend fugitives wanted by the United States government for terrorism or drug-trafficking. Barr declined a congressional request for the full opinion, but instead provided a document that "summarizes the principal conclusions." Congress subpoenaed the opinion, and its public release after Barr's departure from the Justice Department showed he had omitted significant findings in the opinion from his summary document.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General (1990–1991)
In May 1990, Barr was appointed Deputy Attorney General, the official responsible for day-to-day management of the Department. According to media reports, Barr was generally praised for his professional management of the Department.
During August 1991, when then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh resigned to campaign for the Senate, Barr was named Acting Attorney General. Three days after Barr accepted that position, 121 Cuban inmates, awaiting deportation to Cuba, seized 9 hostages at the Talladega federal prison. He directed the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team to assault the prison, which resulted in rescuing all hostages without loss of life.
U.S. Attorney General (1991–1993)
First nomination and confirmation
It was reported that President Bush was impressed with Barr's management of the hostage crisis; weeks later, Bush nominated him as Attorney General.
Barr's two-day confirmation hearing was "unusually placid", and he received a good reception from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked whether he thought a constitutional right to privacy included the right to an abortion, Barr responded that he believed the constitution was not originally intended to create a right to abortion; that Roe v. Wade was thus wrongly decided; and that abortion should be a "legitimate issue for state legislators". "Barr also said at the hearings that Roe v. Wade was 'the law of the land' and claimed he did not have 'fixed or settled views' on abortion." Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joe Biden, though disagreeing with Barr, responded that it was the "first candid answer" he had heard from a nominee on a question that witnesses would normally evade; Biden hailed Barr as "a throwback to the days when we actually had attorneys general that would talk to you." Barr was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was confirmed by voice vote by the full Senate, and was sworn in as Attorney General on November 26, 1991.
During his first tenure as AG, media characterized Barr as staunchly conservative. He was described as affable with a dry, self-deprecating wit. The New York Times described the "central theme" of his tenure to be "his contention that violent crime can be reduced only by expanding Federal and state prisons to jail habitual violent offenders." In an effort to prioritize violent crime Barr reassigned three hundred FBI agents from counterintelligence work to investigations of gang violence, which the New York Times called, "the largest single manpower shift in the bureau's history."
The Case for More Incarceration
In 1992, Barr authored a report, The Case for More Incarceration, which argued for an increase in the United States incarceration rate, the creation of a national program to construct more prisons, and the abolition of parole release. Barr argued that incarceration reduced crime, pointing to crime and incarceration rates in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990; a 1999 criminology study criticized Barr's analysis, saying "so complex an issue as the relationship between crime and punishment cannot be addressed through so simplistic an analysis as a negative correlation between the two very aggregated time series of crime rates and incarceration rates." University of Minnesota criminologist Michael Tonry said the data in Barr's report was deceptively presented; if Barr had chosen five-year intervals, then the data would not have supported Barr's argument, and if Barr had chosen to look at violent crime specifically (as opposed to all crimes as a category), then the data would not have supported his argument. Barr said in the report, "The benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans". In the report, Barr approvingly quoted New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton, "I don't know anyone that goes to prison on their first crime. By the time you go to prison, you are a pretty bad guy." Barr's report influenced the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which aimed to increase the incarceration rate.
In October 1992, Barr appointed then retired New Jersey federal judge Frederick B. Lacey to investigate the Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency handling of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) Iraqgate scandal. The appointment came after Democrats called for a special prosecutor during the scandal fearing a "cover-up" by the administration. House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. González called for Barr's resignation, citing "repeated, clear failures and obstruction" by the Department of Justice in allegedly delaying an investigation of the BNL-Iraqgate case. González also called for an independent special counsel investigation.
Phone surveillance program
In 1992, Barr launched a surveillance program to gather innocent Americans' phone records. The DOJ inspector general concluded that this was program was launched without a review of the legality of the program. According to USA Today, the program "provided a blueprint for far broader phone-data surveillance the government launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."
In late 1992, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, who had been chosen to investigate the Iran–Contra affair, zeroed in on documents that were in the possession of Reagan's former defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger. Weinberger, trying to avoid possible jail time, was preparing to testify that President George H. W. Bush knew about, and even participated in the events leading up to the Iran-Contra scandal.
On December 24, 1992, during his final month in office, Bush, on the advice of Barr, pardoned Weinberger, who had not yet come to trial, along with five other administration officials, who had been found guilty on charges relating to the Iran–Contra affair. Barr was consulted extensively regarding the pardons, and especially advocated for pardoning Weinberger.
Walsh complained about the move insinuating that Bush on Barr's advice had used the pardons to avoid testifying and stating that: "The Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed." He later wrote an account of the investigation in his book, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up, in 2003.
Because of this and Barr's unwillingness to appoint an independent counsel to look into a second scandal known as Iraqgate, New York Times writer William Safire began to refer to Barr as "Coverup-General Barr." Barr, however, responded that he believed Bush had made the right decision regarding that and he felt people in the case had been treated unfairly.
In 1994, Barr became Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the telecommunications company GTE Corporation, where he served for 14 years. During his corporate tenure, Barr directed a successful litigation campaign by the local telephone industry to achieve deregulation by scuttling a series of FCC rules, personally arguing several cases in the federal courts of appeals and the Supreme Court. In 2000, when GTE merged with Bell Atlantic to become Verizon Communications, he left that position.
In 2009, Barr was briefly of counsel to the firm Kirkland & Ellis. From 2010 until 2017, he advised corporations on government enforcement matters and regulatory litigation; he rejoined Kirkland and Ellis in 2017.
Comments about the Trump administration
In 2017, Barr said that there was "nothing inherently wrong" with Donald Trump's calls for investigating Hillary Clinton while the two were both running for president. Barr added that an investigation into an alleged Uranium One controversy was more warranted than looking into whether Trump conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 elections. Barr also said in 2017 that he didn't think "all this stuff" about incarcerating or prosecuting Hillary Clinton was appropriate to say, but added that "there are things that should be investigated that haven't been investigated," although the FBI began investigating the Clinton Foundation and the related Uranium One matter in 2015, followed by investigations by Republican congressional committees.
Barr was publicly critical of the special counsel investigation. In 2017, he faulted Mueller for hiring prosecutors who have contributed to Democratic politicians, saying his team should have had more "balance," and characterized the obstruction of justice investigation as "asinine" and that it was "taking on the look of an entirely political operation to overthrow the president."
In June 2018, Barr sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to senior Justice Department officials, and to members of Trump's legal team, with some of whom he discussed the memo. In it he argued that the Special Counsel should not be investigating Trump for obstruction of justice because Trump's actions, such as firing FBI Director James Comey, were within his powers as head of the executive branch. He characterized the obstruction investigation as "fatally misconceived." The day after the existence of the memo became known, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said "our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn't have." Democrats later characterized the memo as Barr's "job application" for the Attorney General position.
U.S. Attorney General (2019–present)
Second nomination and confirmation
On December 7, 2018, President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Barr for Attorney General to succeed Jeff Sessions. Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman reported that Trump had sought Barr as chief defense lawyer for Trump regarding the special counsel investigation headed by Robert Mueller after Barr made three positions known. First, Barr supported Trump's firing of Comey on May 9, 2017. Second, he questioned the appointments of some of Mueller's prosecutors due to political donations they had made to the Clinton campaign. Third, he alleged there were conflicts of interest of two appointees to the Special Counsel Team, Jennie Rhee and Bruce Ohr.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a vote on Barr on February 7, 2019. The nomination was reported to the Senate on a 12–10, party-line vote.
Barr was confirmed as Attorney General on February 14, 2019, by a 54–45 near party-line vote, with Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) as the three Democrats to vote Yea. Republicans Rand Paul (R-KY) voted No and Richard Burr (R-NC) did not vote. Later that day, Barr was sworn-in as the nation's 85th Attorney General by Chief Justice John Roberts in a ceremony at the White House. He is the first person to be appointed to a second non-consecutive term as Attorney General since John J. Crittenden in 1850.
In May 2019, three months into his tenure as Attorney General, the Associated Press characterized Barr as a champion and advocate for Trump. Barr had enthusiastically supported Trump's political agenda, misrepresented aspects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's, repeated Trump's talking point that those investigating Trump had engaged in "spying", defied congressional subpoenas, and refused to give Congress an unredacted version of the Mueller report.
Under Barr's leadership, the Justice Department changed its position on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Previously the department took the position that the individual mandate provision was unconstitutional, but could be severed from the whole healthcare law. On March 25, the department updated its position to argue that the entire law is unconstitutional. On May 2, the department conducted a filing with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to nullify the entire law, arguing that the removal of the provision on individual mandate results in the entire law becoming unconstitutional. As of that day, President Donald Trump has promised to produce a replacement health insurance plan only after he wins reelection in 2020. If the ACA is nullified, over 20 million Americans risk losing their health insurance.
At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, 2019, Barr was asked by Senator Kamala Harris: "Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?" Barr hesitated, asked her to repeat the question, and finally indicated he was unsure of what 'suggested' meant, saying "there have been discussions of matters out there, they have not asked me to open an investigation ... I wouldn't say suggest." When Harris asked, "Hinted? Inferred?" Barr replied: "I don't know."
Also on May 1, 2019, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told the House Oversight Committee that Barr instructed Justice Department official John Gore to refuse a subpoena to testify in front of the committee because it is a Justice Department requirement to ensure “the confidentiality interests of the Executive Branch.”
Mueller investigation and report
On January 14, 2019, a day before Barr's confirmation hearing for Attorney General, Barr sent written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the eventual final Mueller report, saying "it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel's work ... For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law."
On March 22, 2019, Mueller concluded his special counsel investigation and gave the final report to Barr. On March 24, Barr wrote a four-page letter to Congress describing what he said were the report's principal conclusions: first, that the Special Counsel did not establish conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election; and second, that the Special Counsel made no decision as to whether to prosecute Trump for obstruction of justice, quoting "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein themselves concluded that the evidence did not establish obstruction of justice beyond reasonable doubt, and made the decision not to press the charge; "Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense."
On March 27, Mueller sent Barr a letter describing his concerns of Barr's letter to Congress and the public on March 24. In it, Mueller complained that the summary "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of the Special Counsel's probe, adding, "There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations". Both before and after the release of Barr's summary, Mueller repeatedly tried to get Barr to release the report's introductions and executive summaries. Mueller's letter prompted Barr to call Mueller to discuss about his letter. Barr clarified on the intention of his letter in both his phone call with Mueller and in another letter to Congress that his letter was not intended to be a summary of the report, but rather serve as a description of the principal findings of the report. On April 10, 2019, in one of his testimonies before the House Judiciary Committee, Barr said "I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion."
The Department of Justice released a redacted version of the special counsel's report in the morning of April 18, 2019. After the release of the full report, fact-checkers and news outlets characterized Barr's initial letter as a deliberate mischaracterization of the Mueller Report and its conclusions. The New York Times reported instances in which the Barr letter omitted information and quoted sentence fragments out of context in ways that significantly altered the Mueller findings, including:
- A sentence fragment described only one possible motive for Trump to obstruct justice, while the Mueller report listed other possible motives
- Omission of words and a full sentence that twice suggested there was knowing and complicit behavior between the Trump campaign and Russians that stopped short of coordination
- Omission of language that indicated Trump could be subject to indictment after leaving office, to suggest that Trump was cleared in full
According to the Associated Press, Barr misrepresented the report in several ways, saying the report gave no indication that Congress could make a determination on obstruction of justice (the report specifically stated "that Congress may apply obstruction laws") and that "these reports are not supposed to be made public" (when DOJ regulations give the AG wide authority in releasing reports such as this one). Barr falsely claimed in his summary of the report that "the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation." The Washington Post fact-checker described Barr's claim as "astonishing" and PolitiFact said it was "false." In actuality, Trump declined to grant the Special Counsel an in-person interview, and the Special Counsel report characterized Trump's written responses to interview questions as "inadequate". The report also documented numerous instances where Trump tried to either impede or end the Special Counsel investigation, analyzing each in terms of the three factors necessary for a criminal charge of obstruction.[not in citations given]
During a press conference, Barr said Mueller's report contained "substantial evidence" that Trump was "frustrated and angered" because of his belief that the "investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks"; however, the report gave no indication that Trump's frustrations with the investigation would mitigate obstructing behavior. Barr also said it would not be criminal obstruction of justice for a president to instruct a staffer to lie to investigators about the president’s actions, and suggested a president could legally terminate an investigation into himself if he was being "falsely accused".
On May 8, 2019, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to hold Barr in contempt of congress for failing to comply with a subpoena which requested the full and unredacted Mueller Report.  The matter now falls to the House of Representatives at-large for a contempt of congress vote. 
The Justice Department took the position that disclosure of the unredacted Mueller Report would require the department to violate “the law, court rules and court orders” as well as grand jury secrecy rules. 
In April 2019, Barr stirred controversy by saying he thought "spying did occur" against the Trump 2016 presidential campaign. The remark echoed unsubstantiated claims made by Trump and his supporters that the Trump campaign had been unfairly targeted or spied on by the FBI; Trump described it as an "attempted coup." There is no evidence that government officials engaged in "spying" on the Trump campaign. Barr later said he was not sure what spying had occurred and he did clarify what he meant by "spying". He also said he had no evidence of wrong-doing. Democrats criticized Barr's statement as "incendiary", saying that the statement was intended to please Trump and that the statement lacked credibility following Barr's misrepresentation of the Mueller report in March 2019. Barr said he thought there was not "any pejorative connotation at all" to the term spying. At the time, Barr said he would not launch an investigation into the origins of the FBI probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
FBI officials denied Barr's claims about spying. FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was unaware of any illegal surveillance, abuse of powers or "spying" by the FBI. Subsequently Trump retweeted a far-right pundit who said the FBI had "no leadership" and that Wray was "protecting the same gang that tried to overthrow the president in an illegal coup." Trump said Wray's statement was "ridiculous." Former FBI Director James Comey rebutted Barr, saying "The FBI doesn't spy. The FBI investigates."
In May 2019, Barr asserted, "Government power was used to spy on American citizens". Barr did not identify the specific actions prior to the 2016 election that he considered to be spying. After broadcasting some of Barr's remarks, Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy, a Trump loyalist, falsely asserted that FISA was designed “so that the United States could surveil people in other countries and it’s very disturbing if they use the laws that are supposed to apply to people from other countries to spy on Americans illegally.” That same month, Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to oversee a DOJ probe into the origins of the FBI investigation into Russian interference. At the time, the origins of the probe were already investigated by the Justice Department's inspector general and U.S. attorney John Huber who was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March 2018. Democrats criticized the decision, with Sen. Patrick Leahu saying, "Ordering a 3rd meritless investigation at the request of Trump is beneath the office he holds." A few days after Barr's creation of a third probe, Trump said his campaign was "conclusively spied on", characterized the purported spying as "treason" and called for "long jail sentences." Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said after the launch of the probe that Barr "clearly is protecting" Trump and "advocating his point of view on a lot of these issues."
As Deputy Attorney General, Barr – together with others at the Department of Justice – successfully led the effort for the withdrawal of a proposed Department of Health and Human Services rule that would have allowed people with HIV/AIDS into the United States. He also advocated the use of Guantanamo Bay to prevent Haitian refugees and HIV infected individuals from claiming asylum in the United States. According to Vox in December 2018, Barr supported an aggressive "law and order" agenda on immigration as Attorney General in the Bush Administration.
Barr supports the death penalty, arguing that it reduces crime. He advocated a Bush-backed bill that would have expanded the types of crime that could be punished by execution. In a 1991 op-ed in The New York Times, Barr argued that death row inmates' ability to challenge their sentences should be limited to avoid cases dragging on for years: "This lack of finality devastates the criminal justice system. It diminishes the deterrent effect of state criminal laws, saps state prosecutorial resources and continually reopens the wounds of victims and survivors."
In 1991, Barr stated that he believed the framers of the Constitution did not originally intend to create a right to abortion; that Roe v. Wade was thus wrongly decided; and that abortion should be a "legitimate issue for state legislators." In contrast, Barr said during his 1991 confirmation hearings that Roe was "the law of the land" and that he did not have "fixed or settled views" on the subject.
In a 1995 article for The Catholic Lawyer, Barr stated that the American government is "predicated precisely" on the Judeo-Christian system.:3 Barr grapples with the challenge of representing Catholicism "in an increasingly militant, secular age.":1 Barr asserts that there are three ways secularists use "law as a legal weapon.":8 The first method is through elimination of traditional moral norms through legislation and litigation; Barr cites the elimination of the barriers to divorce and the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade as examples of this method.:8 The second is the promotion of moral relativism through the passage of laws that dissolve moral consensus and enforce neutrality.:8 Barr draws attention to a 1987 case, Gay Rights Coalition v. Georgetown University, which "compel[s] Georgetown University to treat homosexual activist groups like any other student group.":9 The third method is the use of law directly against religion; as an example of this method, Barr cites efforts to use the Establishment Clause to exclude religiously motivated citizens from the public square.:9 Concluding, Barr states the need to "restructure education and take advantage of existing tax deductions for charitable institutions to promote Catholic education.":12
Barr supports a federal ban on marijuana. However, he has stated that the discrepancy between federal and state law is suboptimal, and that if a uniform federal ban on marijuana could not be achieved, then he would support the STATES Act on marijuana legalization. "I think it's a mistake to back off on marijuana... However, if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws, then let's get there and let's get there the right way." Barr also stated that DOJ policy should align with congressional legislation.
Barr is proponent of the unitary executive theory, which holds that the President has broad executive powers. Prior to joining the Trump administration, he argued that the president has "complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding."
Barr has been married to Christine Moynihan Barr since 1973. She holds a masters degree in library science, and together they have three daughters: Mary Barr Daly, Patricia Barr Straughn, and Margaret (Meg) Barr. Their eldest daughter, Mary, born 1977/1978, was a senior Justice Department official who oversaw the department's anti-opioid and addiction efforts; Patricia, born 1981/1982, was counsel for the House Agriculture Committee; and Meg, born 1984/1985, is a former Washington prosecutor and cancer survivor (of recurrent Hodgkin's lymphoma), was counsel for Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana.
In February 2019, as their father awaited Senate confirmation for his appointment as Attorney General, Mary left her post at the Department of Justice as the Trump Administration's point woman on the opioid crisis. Her husband, however, continued to work in the Justice Department's National Security Division. At around the same time that Mary left the Department of Justice, Tyler McGaughey, the husband of her youngest sister, left the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, to join the White House Counsel's office.
Barr is an avid bagpiper. He began playing at age eight and has performed competitively in Scotland with a major American pipe band. At one time, Barr was a member of the City of Washington Pipe Band.
Barr and Robert Mueller have known each other since the 1980s and are said to be good friends. Mueller attended the weddings of two of Barr's daughters, and their wives attend Bible study together.
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