How Attorney General Barr Ended Up At The Center Of The Ukraine Controversy Attorney General Bill Barr first came to the Justice Department promising to remain above politics but has found himself drawn into the center of the Ukraine scandal.

How Attorney General Barr Ended Up At The Center Of The Ukraine Controversy

How Attorney General Barr Ended Up At The Center Of The Ukraine Controversy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Attorney General Bill Barr first came to the Justice Department promising to remain above politics but has found himself drawn into the center of the Ukraine scandal.


When President Trump asked the newly elected president of Ukraine to help him find dirt on a political rival, he suggested he talk to people, both of them lawyers - one, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; the other, the top law enforcement official in the U.S., Attorney General Bill Barr. One is a flashy street fighter very much at home in the president's old life in New York; the other, a buttoned-up longtime Republican who spent his career in official Washington circles.

NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is in the studio now with me to talk about Barr and to talk about how an establishment figure who first served as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration became the go-to guy for this very anti-establishment president. Ryan Lucas, welcome.


KELLY: I want to start at the beginning here. Barr, as we mentioned - he first served as attorney general back in the early '90s for the first President Bush. Remind us how he got there.

LUCAS: So Barr's a - he's a New York City kid. He grew up in the city, went to Columbia, got a master's in Chinese studies. Then he went to work as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency for several years.

KELLY: I didn't know that.

LUCAS: Yeah.

KELLY: He was ex-CIA.

LUCAS: He was ex-CIA, got his law degree from George Washington University here in D.C., spent a brief stint in the Reagan White House, then went into private practice. And then he was pulled back into the George H.W. Bush administration.


WILLIAM BARR: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It's a distinct privilege to appear before this committee.

LUCAS: He became attorney general from 1991 to 1993.


BARR: Nothing could be more destructive of our system of government, of the rule of law than any toleration of political interference with the enforcement of the law.

LUCAS: Very much a tough-on-crime, conservative kind of attorney general - supported incarceration, backed controversial pardons by President Bush in the Iran-Contra scandal - and he's someone who holds expansive views of executive power.

KELLY: When President Trump decided to bring him back, how did that come about? As we mentioned, this is a very establishment guy, and the president prides himself on being anti-establishment.

LUCAS: Right. Barr's name first surfaced in December as a possible replacement for Jeff Sessions. And Sessions, of course, had a kind of rocky stint as attorney general, came under a lot of criticism...

KELLY: I think you can lose the kind of...

LUCAS: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...And just go with rocky, yeah.

LUCAS: ...Coming under criticism from Democrats, from liberal groups and then from the president himself. Trump pushed Sessions out, and then Barr's name surfaces...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to confirm that Bill Barr, one of the most respected jurists in the country...

LUCAS: ...Somebody who could come in and restore stability to the department.


TRUMP: Respected by Republicans and respected by Democrats - he will be nominated for the United States attorney general.

LUCAS: He's someone who holds expansive views of executive power, as I said earlier, which is something that this president, in particular, would appreciate.

KELLY: I'm remembering, though, Democrats had some concerns. There was a memo that they were worried about.

LUCAS: There was a memo that Barr had written in which he criticized aspects of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. And this, of course, came up at his confirmation hearing, and he addressed those concerns.


BARR: President Trump has sought no assurances, promises or commitments from me of any kind, either expressed or implied. And I have not given him any other than that I would run the department with professionalism and integrity.

LUCAS: And ultimately, of course, he was confirmed.

KELLY: Barr, when he took the job, had to promise to be apolitical. Has he been?

LUCAS: His supporters would say that he has not done anything outside the realm of what a normal attorney general would do. Democrats, on the other hand, have a very different view of that. And that started, really, with the four-page summary that he released of the Mueller report in March.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Today the attorney general sent Congress a summary...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A summary of Robert Mueller's report in the form of a four-page letter.

LUCAS: Mueller did not draw a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice, but Barr himself did. And he said there was nothing wrong there.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: However, Attorney General William Barr, who was appointed by the president, said there was no evidence of obstruction in the report.

LUCAS: Democrats felt this was essentially Barr trying to bake in the narrative, to help the president out before anyone else got a chance to see the report - because remember; the public didn't see the report for another month. That was just the beginning of things for Democrats.


BARR: During - I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal. It's a big deal.

LUCAS: Barr later on said that he had concerns about how the investigation unfolded. He actually echoed the language that the president has used, saying that he had concerns of spying on the Trump campaign.


JEANNE SHAHEEN: So you're not - you're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?

BARR: I don't - well, I guess you could - I think there was - spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur.

LUCAS: Also in May, he appointed U.S. attorney for Connecticut John Durham to look into the origins of the Russia investigation. That is now an active inquiry that is being carried out. We learned recently that the attorney general has actually asked the president to make phone calls to foreign leaders to open doors for Barr and Durham as part of this investigation with foreign intelligence services.

KELLY: This is the investigate the investigators theme we've heard so much about.

LUCAS: Exactly. And for Democrats, this is a big problem because this is Barr essentially opening an investigation that the president had been calling for for months.

KELLY: All right. So as that investigation unfolds, we meanwhile have the situation the whole country's fixated on right now, the Ukraine call, in which Barr's name was repeatedly dropped by the president. The president wanted him to be involved. What has Barr had to say about his role in that?

LUCAS: Barr himself has not spoken publicly on this. I am told that he was not thrilled with his name being lumped in with Giuliani. What the Justice Department has said on the record is that Barr has not engaged in any aspect of talking to Ukraine, talking to Giuliani, talking to the president about investigating the Bidens at all. They're saying that Barr didn't even know of the phone call until several weeks after it happened.

KELLY: NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas giving us a profile there of the attorney general, Bill Barr.

Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.