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Roger Stone, the Mueller Report and BLM protests: The questions still hanging over Bill Barr

As the former attorney general does a round of media interviews to plug his new book, there are some uncomfortable facts he seems eager to sidestep. Andrew Feinberg reports

Andrew Feinberg
Washington, DC
Monday 07 March 2022 18:28 GMT
Former attorney general Bill Barr says he'd vote for Trump in 2024

Over the last few days, former Attorney General William Barr has sat for multiple interviews to promote his forthcoming memoir, One Damn Thing After Another.

Last week, he told NBC News anchor Lester Holt he had been “livid” when Mr Trump named him as a point of contact for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who the then-president wanted to provide “dirt” on Joe Biden in exchange for Javelin anti-tank missiles, and he defended his decision to declare the 2020 election free of fraud over the former president’s objections.

Mr Barr also told Holt his former boss was “responsible” for a mob storming the Capitol on 6 January 2021 because, in his estimation, Mr Trump directed the rioters there “to intimidate Congress,” but said he doesn’t believe the ex-president should face criminal charges over the worst attack on the Capitol since 1814.

On Monday, he told Today anchor Savannah Guthrie there was nothing untoward about his decision to issue a summary of ex-special counsel Robert Mueller’s report which exonerated Mr Trump from any wrongdoing despite Mr Mueller finding multiple instances in which Mr Trump obstructed the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

But the questions the ex-attorney general has been asked so far on his publicity tour have omitted a number of decisions he made and subjects he discussed during his tenure as attorney general that go beyond his handling of the Mueller Report or Mr Trump’s claims of election fraud.

Bill Barr says Donald Trump responsible for January 6 Capitol riot

Here are a few of the things that have been left out so far.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 election

When Mr Barr released a redacted version of Mr Mueller’s report, he cut out a particularly troubling sentence which described how “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” and how Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts”.

A journalist interviewing Mr Barr on his publicity tour might want to consider asking him why he felt those facts should have been hidden from the American people.

What is John Durham actually doing?

In May 2019, Mr Barr tapped Connecticut US attorney John Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor with a track record of conducting sensitive investigations into intelligence matters, with looking into the origins of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane probe into links between Russia’s government and Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign.

In October 2020 — when it was clear to him that Mr Trump would lose his re-election bid — Mr Barr gave Mr Durham Special Counsel status, which removed him from the Justice Department chain of command and protected him from being fired by the incoming Biden administration.

Nearly three years after he began investigating, Mr Durham has indicted just two people — both lawyers — on charges that they’d made false statements relating to the probe of Mr Trump’s campaign.

Other than legal observers and experts taking notice of the relative paucity of criminal charges resulting from his long-running investigation, Mr Durham’s work has mainly attracted attention from right-wing media outlets which have seized on his use of unrelated legal pleadings to float outlandish conspiracy theories about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s 2016 opponent and a perennial bête noire for the GOP.

Mr Trump has long described the probe into his 2016 campaign as a “witch hunt,” but when pressed on it so far, his former attorney general hasn’t explained how Mr Durham isn’t doing the same, and hasn’t explained whether he gave him special counsel status to placate Mr Trump and be a thorn in the side of Democrats.

Why did he go so easy on Roger Stone?

In February 2020, Mr Barr drew a rebuke from two career prosecutors after he ordered the department to water down a sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, the self-described GOP dirty trickster and long-time friend of Mr Trump who a jury had convicted of a bevy of charges, including witness tampering, for threatening to kill radio host Randy Credico’s dog, Bianca, if he did not lie to investigators.

Bianca, a dog who was threatened by Roger Stone (unknown)

Initially, the DOJ asked the judge overseeing the case for a sentence of seven to nine years in federal prison — standard for a person convicted of witness tampering. But at Mr Barr’s insistence, a second set of prosecutors filed an updated request after the two original attorneys resigned. It was far lower than what had been asked for.

Mr Barr has long been an advocate of longer prison sentences for almost all crimes. It might be useful for him to be asked why Mr Stone was the exception.

Why did he lie about firing Geoffrey Berman?

The US attorney for the Southern District for New York is the federal prosecutor whose jurisdiction includes Mr Trump’s former residence and his eponymous real estate company.

In the summer of 2020, a bizarre scene played out when Mr Barr issued a statement claiming the court-appointed prosecutor who’d then held the job, Geoffrey Berman, was resigning to take a job in Washington.

Mr Berman issued a statement of his own claiming Mr Barr had asked him to resign but he had refused, because the only people who he believed could fire him were the judges who had appointed him after Mr Trump failed to nominate anyone to fill the role.

He later told the House Judiciary Committee Mr Barr had threatened him with a public firing if he did not resign.

The former attorney general never fully explained why it was so important to remove Mr Berman. Perhaps he should be asked by whoever interviews him next.

Why did he change Justice Department policy about investigating political candidates?

In February 2020, Mr Barr issued a little-noticed memorandum which laid out and reiterated some of the Justice Department’s longstanding policies concerning criminal charges in the run-up to a general election.

The memorandum broke from prior policies by requiring any part of the DOJ to get Mr Barr’s personal approval before investigating any presidential candidate.

Specifically, Mr Barr said no investigation into a candidate for president, vice-president, or any of their advisers, could begin without notifying him and receiving his approval.

But the memorandum went even further by requiring the approval of political appointees within the department before launching any probe related to ““illegal contributions, donations or expenditures by foreign nationals to a presidential or congressional campaign”.

One might want to ask Mr Barr why he thought it prudent to require political appointees to approve any investigation into illegal campaign contributions when his boss, according to many experts, had benefited from a massive in-kind contribution from the Russian government four years earlier.

Barr’s views on the separation of church and state

In a February 2019 speech at Notre Dame University’s law school, Mr Barr raised some eyebrows among civil rights advocates when he devoted a significant portion of his remarks to how religion has been “under attack” and “driven from the public square” over the last half-century, and decrying what he called “the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism”.

Specifically, he lamented how US law “is being used as a weapon” against religious devotees by “militant secularists” in the form of non-discrimination laws and school curricula that acknowledge the existence of LGBT+ people.

If a future interviewer of Mr Barr wanted to truly inquire into his view of the role of government in protecting the prerogatives of fundamentalist Christians, he or she would do well to ask him to what extent he believes religious fundamentalists should be given veto power over what is permitted to be taught to children. His answer might be telling.

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