WASHINGTON - In the short time since his return to the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr has faced a tidal wave of public controversy and criticism for what critics see as an effort to shield President Donald Trump from congressional oversight.
Barr has been accused of misrepresenting the contents of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian election interference and potential obstruction of justice by the president. The House Judiciary Committee has already voted to hold Barr in contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena for an unredacted version of Mueller's report. And pundits and politicians, including some conservatives, have accused him of acting like the president's personal defense attorney. Many of the 2020 presidential candidates have called on him to resign.
But it is the presidency, not the president, that he is defending, Barr told The Wall Street Journal during a trip to El Salvador, his first interview since his February swearing in.
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"I felt the rules were being changed to hurt Trump, and I thought it was damaging for the presidency over the long haul," Barr said.
"At every grave juncture the presidency has done what it is supposed to do, which is to provide leadership and direction," he told the Journal. "If you destroy the presidency and make it an errand boy for Congress, we're going to be a much weaker and more divided nation."
Barr, 68, has long believed in the need for a strong executive branch. In his first stint as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, he bristled at independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation into the Iran-Contra affair and reportedly had "an itchy finger" to fire him.
Walsh's probe into the Reagan administration's sale of arms to Iran and illegal funding of anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua uncovered notes from Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, which Walsh said were "evidence of a conspiracy among the highest-ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public."
Weinberger was facing felony indictments when Barr advised Bush to pardon him, along with five other officials implicated in the scandal.
In 2001, Barr explained that he "favored the broadest" use of the president's power to pardon.
"I went over and told the President I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others," Barr said.
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When Bush and his advisers debated whether or not to go to war after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, then-Deputy Attorney General Barr argued the president had the authority to order military operations with or without congressional approval, according to Bob Woodward's 1991 book, "The Commanders."
During his time at the head of Bush's Office of Legal Counsel, he tried to restore the "powers of the presidency," which he felt had been "severely eroded since Watergate and the tactics of the Hill Democrats over an extended period of time when they were in power." He said the group tried to create "uniform standards on how you handle document requests, how you serve executive privilege, what Congress can get, what they can't get."
And in a February 2017 op-ed for The Washington Post, Barr said Trump clearly had the constitutional authority to order a ban on travel to the United States from a list of predominantly Muslim nations and was right to fire acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she directed the Justice Department not to defend the order in court.
"Presidential powers are not exercised by a body or group. The Constitution vests 'all executive power' in one and only one person - the president," Barr wrote. "The president need not 'convince' his subordinate that his decision reflects the best view of the law."
And in a June 2018 memo to the Justice Department, Barr warned that if Mueller found Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey to be obstruction it "would have potentially disastrous implications, not just for the Presidency, but for the Executive branch as a whole."
"The Constitution places no such limit on the President's supervisory authority," Barr argued.
Barr has also generated controversy with his contention that "spying did occur" by the FBI on the Trump campaign in 2016. He has opened an investigation to determine if that "spying" was "properly predicated" and whether "government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale."
"Government power was used to spy on American citizens," Barr told the Journal in the first part of the interview, which was published last week. "I can't imagine any world where we wouldn't take a look and make sure that was done properly."
Comey has defended the decision to investigate Trump campaign officials.
"The FBI doesn't spy, the FBI investigates," Comey said in an interview earlier this month. "We investigated a very serious allegation that Americans might be hooked up with the Russian effort to attack our democracy."
Mueller's report did not call for Trump's prosecution for obstruction of justice, nor did it exonerate him. Rather, it outlined the evidence of 10 potentially obstructive acts. Barr and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided not to charge Trump.
Many legal experts and former federal prosecutors have opined that anyone who was not the president would have been charged. Barr's decision not to prosecute and his encouragement of Trump to assert executive privilege in the face of congressional subpoenas have led many critics to say that the attorney general has done irreparable harm to his reputation.
"I've noticed one of the talking points these days is, 'Oh isn't it a tragedy Barr is losing his reputation,"' or, 'His legacy is being tinged because of his service in this administration,'" Barr told Fox News.
"I don't think those people are really concerned about my legacy."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The president is not 'an errand boy for Congress': Barr says he's protecting presidency, not Trump