Barr’s Defense of Trump Rewards the President With the Attorney General He Wanted

When President Trump nominated William P. Barr as attorney general last December, some viewed his age and establishment pedigree as signs that he would act independently in his handling of the Russia investigation.

Since he already served once as the nation’s top law enforcement officer during the administration of President George Bush, they said that Mr. Barr, at 68 years old, would be more concerned with protecting his own reputation than the president’s.

On Thursday, in an extraordinary news conference 90 minutes before he released the report of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, Mr. Barr acted more as a defense lawyer for Mr. Trump than as the leader of the Justice Department.

He repeatedly declared that Mr. Mueller had cleared the president of a conspiracy with Russia and sympathized with the frustration Mr. Trump felt at the “relentless speculation” over his purported ties with Russia. After taking a handful of questions and ignoring many others, he walked off the stage.

For supporters of Mr. Trump, it was a forceful defense of a president who they believe has been unfairly tormented by a politically motivated investigation that sought to discredit his victory in the election. For the president’s critics, it merely confirmed what they already believed: Mr. Trump was getting the attorney general he always wanted.

Mr. Barr does not have the legislative record of his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, who in his 20 years as a senator from Alabama was regarded as one of the Senate’s most conservative members. But based on his expansive views of executive power and his conservative social and political ideology, it was not entirely a surprise that Mr. Barr would side with Mr. Trump against those who argued that he broke the law in his efforts to undermine Mr. Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election.

He had made those views clear in a 19-page memo he wrote for the Justice Department in June 2018, as a private citizen, in which he castigated Mr. Mueller’s investigation for “proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws” that he said could have “grave consequences” for the presidency.

That memo, which critics have characterized as a kind of audition tape to serve as Mr. Sessions’s replacement, turns out to be an accurate road map to Mr. Barr’s handling of the Mueller report. He acknowledged on Thursday that he disagreed with Mr. Mueller on several legal theories on potential obstruction.

[What we know so far about the Mueller report: Live updates.]

But Mr. Barr’s untrammeled view of executive privilege goes further back than that. During the George Bush administration, he counseled the president that he had the right to start a major land war in the Persian Gulf without the authorization or even support of Congress. Mr. Bush, more cautious than his then-deputy attorney general, asked Congress for a vote to support the war.

A conservative Catholic whose father was the headmaster of an elite private school in Manhattan, Mr. Barr has argued that the Supreme Court ruled wrongly in the landmark Roe vs. Wade abortion case. More recently, he told Congress during his confirmation hearing that he viewed Roe vs. Wade as “settled law.”

Mr. Barr, who began his career as a C.I.A. analyst and has ties to the conservative Federalist Society, has argued for Republican goals, including deregulation of business. As a lawyer for the telecommunications industry after leaving the Bush administration, he once likened the regulatory policy of the Federal Communications Commission to the “central planning” of communist governments.

“I’m not a bomb-thrower by any means,” he said to The New York Times in 1997, “but my basic philosophy is that you don’t get anywhere by kowtowing to regulators.”

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