in the weeks before November’s election, instructed prosecutors and senior colleagues to prevent word of investigations into
from becoming public and keep the Justice Department out of campaign politics, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Barr took more steps than previously reported to insulate the investigations, despite calls from
and Republican allies to announce a probe involving President-elect
Mr. Barr and senior department officials relayed the instructions in conversations with prosecutors, questioning whether their staff members could be trusted and warning against issuing subpoenas or taking other steps that might become public, some of the people familiar with the matter said.
The department didn’t respond to an October letter from Republican lawmakers requesting Mr. Barr appoint a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden and his father.
Justice Department guidelines codified in 2012 caution against taking actions close to an election that could be seen as seeking to affect the outcome. Disclosing details of an ongoing investigation into the son of a presidential candidate hit a line Mr. Barr felt would violate that policy and give the appearance of interfering in the election, people close to him said.
The investigations into Hunter Biden spilled into public view last week after Mr. Biden announced his tax affairs were under investigation. Mr. Biden said he has acted legally. The investigations, which began in 2018, don’t implicate Joe Biden, according to people familiar with the matter. The president-elect, who has not directly addressed the investigations, has said he is proud of his son.
In siding with department practice, colleagues and legal observers said Mr. Barr bucked critics on the left and right who have accused him of being too accommodating to Mr.
“Insofar as we’ve seen some divergence between what Trump wants and Barr’s vision of the executive, Barr appears to have sided with his vision of the executive and his role at the department,” said
a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and part of a group of prominent conservative lawyers critical of the Trump administration and Mr. Barr. “It doesn’t transform him from a villain to a hero, but it suggests he’s a more complicated figure than at least some of his critics were acknowledging.”
In addition to keeping the Hunter Biden matters quiet, Mr. Barr earlier this month said that the Justice Department has found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would reverse Joe Biden’s victory. That dealt a blow to Mr. Trump’s efforts to challenge the election.
Over the weekend, Mr. Trump publicly castigated his attorney general for not disclosing the probes before Nov. 3 and in conversations last week considered firing him, according to people familiar with the matter. “Bill Barr frankly did the wrong thing,” Mr. Trump said on Fox & Friends on Sunday.
For most of his nearly two years in office, Mr. Barr had a smooth relationship with Mr. Trump, especially compared with the administration’s first attorney general,
Mr. Barr provided rationales for Mr. Trump’s bullish approach to the presidency. That in turn gave Mr. Barr room to pursue longtime priorities of expanding the powers of the presidency and countering what he sees as the leftward, secular tilt of the nation.
The two were in such lockstep that Democrats and other Trump critics accused him of acting as the president’s defense lawyer.
To some critics, Mr. Barr’s recent actions don’t repair what they see as Mr. Barr’s persistent undermining of the Justice Department’s traditional independence from White House influence. They cite in part Mr. Barr’s sometimes open disparagement of career prosecutors and his decisions to reverse their work and give lenient treatment to Trump advisers like
who faced criminal prosecutions.
“I do not think that the attorney general deserves all that much credit for conducting himself like an attorney general,” said
a former Justice Department official under President
George W. Bush,
adding that Mr. Barr’s intervention in high-profile cases eroded public confidence in the fairness of the department. “His legacy is etched by the decisions he made on behalf of the president and the president’s friends and allies.”
Mr. Barr has said that he intervened to correct what he saw as overreach by the prosecutors and flaws in the department’s approach to those cases.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on keeping the Biden probes from leaking and the reasons for doing so.
Just before 2016’s election, then-FBI Director
released information about new evidence in the investigation into presidential candidate
use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State. Many other Justice Department officials disagreed with Mr. Comey for speaking about an investigation in progress so near to the election. Back then, Mr. Barr said Mr. Comey violated no policy and did the right thing.
Mr. Trump sought investigations into Hunter and Joe Biden last year as the elder Mr. Biden emerged as a potential rival for the presidency. Mr. Trump asked Ukraine’s president to announce investigations into Hunter Biden’s dealings with a Ukrainian natural gas company and said he would direct his personal attorney,
and Mr. Barr to contact him. The request eventually got Mr. Trump impeached by the House; he was acquitted by the Senate. The Justice Department said Mr. Trump never asked Mr. Barr to contact the Ukrainians.
After the acquittal, Mr. Barr announced that the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh,
would receive and review information related to Hunter Biden and Ukraine from Mr. Giuliani.
As the election drew nearer, calls from Mr. Trump and some Republican allies for the investigations rose in urgency. Mr. Barr and other top Justice Department officials resisted inquiries from several Republican lawmakers and their staffs for information on whether investigators were examining Hunter Biden, two people familiar with the matter said.
“It’s not even debatable that it is wrong for anyone in the chain of command at DOJ, especially the top law enforcement person in the country, to reveal an ongoing confidential criminal investigation. And Bill Barr was not going to do that,” said
a former U.S. attorney and longtime friend of the attorney general.
Mr. Barr’s associates view Mr. Comey’s coming forward differently, since the FBI director was keeping Congress updated on an investigation that the department had previously acknowledged.
After November’s election, some Democrats feared Mr. Barr would support Mr. Trump’s claims of widespread voting fraud, despite no evidence. Mr. Barr issued a memo days after the November election freeing federal prosecutors to pursue allegations of voting irregularities before the 2020 election is certified if there were clear and apparently-credible allegations of irregularities that could potentially impact the outcome. That appeared to conflict with longstanding policy instructing prosecutors not to open probes into election-related criminal behavior until after the results are complete and certified. The department official who oversaw such investigations left his post in response, though he stayed at the agency.
Instead, Mr. Barr, who in television appearances had echoed the president’s criticism of mail-in voting as susceptible to fraud, said in a Dec. 1 Associated Press interview that “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could” reverse Mr. Biden’s victory.
Messrs. Trump and Barr have rarely spoken directly in recent weeks, people familiar with the matter said, with Mr. Barr instead communicating mostly through White House counsel
a longtime associate.
Mr. Trump blasted Mr. Barr on Twitter Saturday, saying “IF Biden gets in, nothing will happen to Hunter or Joe. Barr will do nothing,” and a Biden administration would end the investigation.
The Biden transition team declined to comment.
Mr. Barr has told associates he would stay on the job unless he is dismissed. One person said Mr. Barr is “waiting out the clock” until the administration ends.
Mr. Barr, a longtime Washington stalwart who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush and later became a corporate telecommunications lawyer, has said he joined the administration reluctantly.
But he believed that the power of the presidency had been eroded by a number of factors, particularly special counsel
investigation into whether there were Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election. He later echoed Mr. Trump’s own criticism of the probe, saying he believed it was “one of the greatest travesties in American history” and an effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that had the effect of “sabotaging” the presidency.
Mr. Barr depicted the results of that investigation in a way that Mr. Mueller and many others described as misleading or overly favorable to Mr. Trump and then worked over the ensuing months to undo some of the prosecutions.
Mr. Barr soon after ordered an investigation into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 probe that had led to Mr. Mueller’s appointment. Mr. Barr openly contemplated releasing the results ahead of November’s election. He told The Wall Street Journal in August the department’s election-sensitivities policy did not apply because the previously announced inquiry did not “reach to Obama or Biden, and therefore the people under investigation are in fact not really political figures.”
Then, the federal prosecutor leading that review,
hadn’t completed his work in time. Mr. Durham’s deputy resigned in part over concerns that Mr. Barr would use the findings for political gain, the Journal previously reported. Mr. Trump and his allies said they hoped some findings would be released before the election. Mr. Durham hasn’t commented on his team’s work.
In October, Mr. Barr appointed Mr. Durham special counsel, meaning he can only be removed for cause and likely leaving the probe for his successor to address. He didn’t disclose that appointment until Dec. 1.
Write to Sadie Gurman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com
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