William Barr

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William Barr
William Barr.jpg
77th and 85th
United States Attorney General
Assumed office
February 14, 2019
PresidentDonald Trump
DeputyRod Rosenstein
Jeffrey A. Rosen (nominee)
Preceded byJeff Sessions
In office
November 26, 1991 – January 20, 1993
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
DeputyGeorge J. Terwilliger III
Preceded byDick Thornburgh
Succeeded byJanet Reno
25th United States
Deputy Attorney General
In office
May 1990 – November 26, 1991
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Preceded byDonald B. Ayer
Succeeded byGeorge J. Terwilliger III
United States Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel
In office
April 1989 – May 1990
PresidentGeorge H. W. Bush
Preceded byDouglas Kmiec
Succeeded byJ. Michael Luttig
Personal details
William Pelham Barr

(1950-05-23) May 23, 1950 (age 68)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Christine Barr (m. 1973)
ParentsDonald Barr
Mary Margaret Ahern
EducationColumbia University (BA, MA)
George Washington University Law School (JD)

William Pelham Barr (born May 23, 1950) is an American attorney. He was appointed by Donald Trump as the 85th United States Attorney General. He had previously served in the position from 1991 to 1993. He began his current term on February 14, 2019. 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. He is a member of the Republican Party.

Early life

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.[1] Barr's father was born Jewish but later converted to Catholicism, and Barr was raised Catholic. His mother is of Irish ancestry.[2][3] The second of four sons,[4] he grew up on the Upper West Side, and attended the Corpus Christi School and Horace Mann School. After high school, Barr entered Columbia University, where he majored in government and graduated with a B.A. in 1971. He then did two years of graduate study at Columbia, receiving an M.A. in government and Chinese studies in 1973. He then attended law school at the George Washington University Law School, graduating with a J.D. summa cum laude in 1977.[5]


Barr greeting President Ronald Reagan in 1983

Early career

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.[6] He was also in private practice for nine years with the Washington law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge.[7]

U.S. Department of Justice

Official photo of Barr during his first tenure as Attorney General
Barr and Dan Quayle watch as President George H. W. Bush signs the Civil Rights Commission Reauthorization Act in the Rose Garden of the White House in 1991

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 and wrote advisory opinions justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega, and a controversial opinion 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10][11][12]

During August 1991, when then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh resigned to campaign for the Senate, Barr was named Acting Attorney General.[13] 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.[14][15]

U.S. Attorney General (1991–1993)

Nomination and confirmation

It was reported that President Bush was impressed with Barr's management of the hostage crisis; weeks later, President Bush nominated him as Attorney General.[16]

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.[17] 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".[17] "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."[18] 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."[19] Barr was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, was confirmed by voice vote by the full Senate,[20][21] and was sworn in as Attorney General on November 26, 1991.[22]


According to The New York Times, Barr's tenure started with anti-crime measures. In an effort to prioritize violent crime Barr reassigned three hundred FBI agents from counterintelligence work to investigations of gang violence, which the Times called, "the largest single manpower shift in the bureau's history."[23]

In October 1991, Barr appointed then retired Democratic Chicago judge Nicholas Bua as special counsel in the Inslaw scandal. Bua's 1993 report found the Department of no wrong doing in the matter.[24]

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.[25] 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.[26][27]

Also in 1992, Barr authored a report, The Case for More Incarceration,[28] which argued for an increase in the United States incarceration rate for violent criminals.[29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36]

The media described Barr as staunchly conservative.[23][37] 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."[23] At the same time, reporters consistently described Barr as affable with a dry, self-deprecating wit.[38][39]

Controversy over Iran-Contra

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,[citation needed] 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.[40]

On December 24, 1992, during his final month in office, George H. W. Bush, on the advice of Barr, pardoned Weinberger,[41][better source needed] who had not yet come to trial along with five other administration officials,[who?] who had been found guilty on charges relating to the Iran–Contra affair.[42][43]

Barr was consulted extensively regarding the pardons, and especially advocated for the pardon of former Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger.[44]

Walsh complained bitterly 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."[45] 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, iconic New York Times writer, William Safire, began to refer to Barr as "Coverup-General Barr."[46] 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.[47]

Post-DOJ career

Upon leaving the DOJ in 1993, Barr was appointed by Virginia Governor George Allen to co-chair a commission to reform the criminal justice system and abolish parole in the state.[48][49]

Later in 1994, Barr became Executive Vice President and General Counsel of 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.[50][51] In 2000, when GTE merged with Bell Atlantic to become Verizon Communications, he left that position. While at GTE, from 1997 to 2000, Barr also served on the Board of Visitors of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.[52]

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.[53]

U.S. Attorney General (2019–present)

Barr is sworn in as Attorney General by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2019

Nomination and confirmation

On December 7, 2018, President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Barr for Attorney General to succeed Jeff Sessions.[54][55] 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 supported Trump's firing of Comey (May 9, 2017); questioned the appointments of some of Mueller's prosecutors due to political donations they had made to the Clinton campaign; and also alleged there were conflicts of interest of two appointees to the Special Counsel Team, Jennie Rhee and Bruce Ohr.[56][57][58]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a vote on Barr on February 7, 2019.[59] Barr was reported to the Senate on a 12–10, party-line vote.

Barr meets with the Justice Department leadership

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.[60][61] 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.[62] He is the first person to be appointed to a second non-consecutive term as Attorney General since John J. Crittenden in 1850.[63]

Policy positions


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.[64] He also advocated the use of Guantanamo Bay to prevent Haitian refugees and HIV infected individuals from claiming asylum in the United States.[43] According to Vox in December 2018, Barr supported an aggressive "law and order" agenda on immigration as Attorney General in the Bush Administration.[65]

Death penalty

As Deputy Attorney General, Barr is a proponent of the death penalty because he believes stricter death penalty laws would reduce crime. He advocated a Bush-backed bill that would have expanded the types of crime that could be punished by execution.

Barr with Senator Mitt Romney in February 2019

In a 1991 op-ed in The New York Times, Barr also 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".[66][67]

Social issues

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."[17] In contrast, Barr said during his confirmation hearings that Roe was "the law of the land" and that he did not have "fixed or settled views" on the subject.[18]

In a 1995 scholarly article for The Catholic Lawyer, Barr states that American government is "predicated precisely" on the Judeo-Christian system.[68][68]:3 Barr grapples with the challenge of representing Catholicism "in an increasingly militant, secular age."[68]:1 Barr asserts that there are three ways secularists use "law as a legal weapon."[68]: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.[68]:8 The second is the promotion of moral relativism through the passage of laws that dissolve moral consensus and enforce neutrality.[68]: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."[68]: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.[68]:9 Concluding, Barr states the need to "restructure education and take advantage of existing tax deductions for charitable institutions to promote Catholic education."[68]:12

Drug policy

Barr personally prefers a federal ban on marijuana. However, due to thinking that a general consensus on a federal ban is not possible, Barr prefers the STATES Act on marijuana legalization.[69] "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.[70] Currently, the STATES Act is being analyzed by the Department of Justice for "comment": "Once we get those comments, we'll be able to work with you on any concerns about the STATES law, but I would much rather that approach – the approach taken by the STATES Act – than where we currently are."[69]

Barr is also in favor of more approval of cannabis growers for research.[71] "As discussed at my hearing, I do not intend to go after parties who have complied with state law in reliance on the Cole Memorandum," Barr mentioned at one of his hearings prior to becoming Attorney General.[71]

On April 18, 2019, the Mueller Report was released to the public; redacted
Barr's Memorandum to DOJ in opposition to Mueller

2016 election

Barr donated $55,000 to Jeb Bush during the 2016 United States presidential election.[72]

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 the Uranium One controversy was more warranted than looking into whether Trump conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 elections.[73] 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."[74]

In February 2017, Barr argued Trump was justified in firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to defend Executive Order 13769.[75]

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."[76][77] In June 2018, Barr sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arguing that the Special Counsel's approach to potential obstruction of justice by Trump was "fatally misconceived" and that, based on his knowledge, Trump's actions were within his presidential authority.[78] The day after the existence of the memo became known, Rosenstein said "our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts of the case, which Mr. Barr didn't have."[79] In a letter to Senator Lindsey Graham on January 14, 2019, Barr disclosed he had sent the memo to, and discussed it with, several White House and Trump attorneys.[80]

On January 14, 2019, a day before Barr's hearings 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."[81][82]

On March 22, 2019, Robert Mueller concluded his special counsel investigation and gave the final report to Barr for examination.[83] On March 24, Barr wrote a four-page letter to Congress summarizing 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.[84][85]

Department of Justice released a redacted version of the special counsel's final report in the morning of April 18, 2019.[86][87]

Personal life

Barr has been married to Christine Moynihan Barr since 1973. She holds a masters degree in library science, and together they have three daughters:[88] Mary Barr Daly, Patricia Barr Straughn,[89] and Margaret (Meg) Barr.[90] Their eldest daughter, Mary, born 1977/1978, and 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.[90] In February 2019, as their father awaited Senate confirmation for his appointment as Attorney General,[91] Mary left her post at the U.S. Department of Justice as the Trump Administration's point woman on the opioid crisis.[92] Her husband, however, continued to work in the Justice Department's National Security Division.[93] At around the same time that Mary Daly 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.[91]

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.[38]

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.[94]

See also


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