On Monday, outgoing President Donald Trump announced that Attorney General William Barr would be leaving the administration on Dec. 23, as the pair paid glowing tribute to one another despite a weeks-long falling out over Barr’s apparent reluctance to take part in Trump’s effort to overturn the election.
“Just had a very nice meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr at the White House. Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job! As per letter, Bill will be leaving just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family,” Trump announced on Twitter. “Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen, an outstanding person, will become Acting Attorney General. Highly respected Richard Donoghue will be taking over the duties of Deputy Attorney General. Thank you to all!”
The news came moments after the Electoral College officially affirmed Joe Biden’s victory in last month’s presidential election and the timing was hard not to view as an effort to distract from Trump’s latest defeat. While the Electoral College meeting is normally a mere ritual, Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss through the courts and refusal to accept the fact of Biden’s 7-million vote victory infused it with drama, as cable news networks spent the day updating the Electoral College tally as electors met and voted to make Biden the next president.
Since his elevation to the cabinet in 2019 following the dismissal of Jeff Sessions—whom Trump deemed insufficiently loyal for his decision to recuse from the Russia 2016 election interference probe—Barr has been perhaps Trump’s most obsequious lieutenant. That deference came across in his resignation letter, which praised Trump to the sky while taking final pot shots at Trump’s political adversaries.
“Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance,” Barr wrote. “Your 2016 victory speech in which you reached out to your opponents and called for working together for the benefit of the American people was immediately met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive or deceitful, was out of bounds. The Nadir of this campaign was the effort to cripple, if not oust, your Administration with frenzied and baseless accusations of collusion with Russia.”
Barr also wrote that he updated the president on the Department of Justice’s “review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued.”
We don’t know if Barr is leaving of his own accord or if Trump pushed him out. The president recently expressed disappointment that his attorney general would not go along with his efforts to manufacture evidence of widespread voter fraud and fight to overturn the election results. Earlier this month, he openly floated the idea of firing Barr.
Shortly after the election, Barr took the extraordinary step of sidestepping existing protocols around vote fraud investigations to order a probe of the non-existent election fraud, causing the Justice Department’s top prosecutor for election crimes, Richard Pilger, to resign. Ultimately, like the dozens of judges and courts that have investigated the issue, Barr could not find any fraud that would have affected the outcome of the election. He conceded as much last month, when he told the Associated Press “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
After that announcement, Trump and his allies escalated their attacks on the attorney general. Barr fell further out of favor with Trump when it was reported that he had held back news of a tax investigation into Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, as well as updates surrounding an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe by prosecutor John Durham.
Barr’s restraint here was appropriate. Interference in elections from the Department of Justice have become subjects of major controversy during the Trump years. Former FBI Director James Comey was publicly rebuked by the inspector general last year for breaking protocols to offer updates on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server in the midst of the 2016 election, a decision which very likely resulted in Trump’s victory. Trump ultimately fired Comey, using his public statements during the election as pretext, when his actual—later confessed—motivation was Comey’s continued effort to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Barr, to his credit, refused to make the same mistake that Comey had.
Barr’s apparent ouster came after he pushed investigations of Trump’s enemies, publicly touted those probes, crafted commutations and pardons of Trump’s political allies ensnared in the Russia investigation that were opposed by his own prosecutors, forced his DOJ to drop charges against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn against the wishes of his own prosecutors in an unprecedented action, protected Trump during the Ukraine bribery scandal by claiming no crimes had been committed without opening an actual investigation, misled the public about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Trump, attempted to have the Department of Justice defend Trump in a private defamation case brought by someone who has accused the president of rape, and was generally the president’s fiercest partisan attack dog. But none of that was enough for Trump, apparently.
Barr’s successor and former deputy, Jeffrey A. Rosen, will likely be kept busy the next month as Trump continues to push for investigations of his political rivals. The president is also reportedly preparing a wide-ranging pardon spree for allies (and, potentially, even himself). Even Barr himself—one of the key architects of George H.W. Bush’s Iran-Contra pardons during his first stint as attorney general nearly 30 years ago—may still have more than a bit role to play in the waning days of the Trump presidency before he leaves the attorney general’s office a full four weeks early.