President Donald Trump announced Monday that Attorney General William Barr will leave the Justice Department before Christmas.
"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 tweeted. "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!"
Tensions between Barr and Trump boiled over in recent weeks after the attorney general failed to deliver on politically motivated investigations targeting the president's rivals, and when he publicly confirmed that the Justice Department had not uncovered evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, directly undercutting Trump's conspiracy theories.
The final straw for Trump came when it surfaced that Barr instructed department prosecutors not to reveal the existence of criminal investigations into President-elect Joe Biden's son, Hunter, in the months leading up to the election. The news is said to have infuriated the president, who repeatedly accused the Bidens of being in bed with corrupt interests before the election.
Trump's announcement on Monday was nonetheless a remarkable development for Barr, who until recently was seen as one of Trump's most loyal attack dogs and described by some legal experts as behaving more like the president's personal defense lawyer than the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
Indeed, in his letter announcing that he would be leaving the department before Christmas, Barr heaped praise on the president and lent credibility to his grievances, writing, "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 and 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 added, sharply mischaracterizing the FBI's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 US election.
The special counsel Robert Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge anyone on the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia during the election. But prosecutors emphasized that "the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."
Barr also tried to walk some of his statements about voter fraud back, writing, "I appreciate the opportunity to update you this afternoon on the Department's review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued."
Barr went on to congratulate Trump in his letter on his "many successes and unprecedented achievements," which the attorney general said Trump accomplished "in the face of relentless, implacable resistance."
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 14, 2020
Trump tapped Barr for attorney general in 2018 after he wrote a memo saying the special counsel Robert Mueller's obstruction-of-justice investigation into Trump's actions surrounding the FBI's Russia probe was "fatally misconceived" and "legally insupportable." After he was confirmed by the Senate, one of the first things Barr did was open an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe. Barr tapped US attorney John Durham to conduct the investigation, but the attorney general was still closely — and unusually — involved in the inquiry.
In his public statements, Barr often parroted Trump's claims, even when they weren't supported by evidence, like the notion that the FBI illegally "spied" on his 2016 presidential campaign. The DOJ inspector general concluded last year that no such improper surveillance took place.
After Barr overrode career prosecutors in February to request a more lenient sentence for the Trump ally and convicted felon Roger Stone, the president applauded the attorney general "for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought." Trump later commuted Stone's sentence.
In May, Barr and senior DOJ officials abruptly moved to drop the department's case against former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation. Trump pardoned Flynn late last month.
Legal experts and DOJ veterans lambasted the attorney general over his actions in the Stone and Flynn cases, saying he used the department as a sword against Trump's enemies and a shield for the president and his allies.
Criticism of Barr's conduct mounted in September, when he defended the department's intervention in a defamation suit that the former columnist E. Jean Carroll, who has accused Trump of raping her, filed against the president. In a highly unusual move, the DOJ asked for its own lawyers to take over Trump's defense in place of the president's private attorneys.
In the months leading up to the election, Barr joined Trump's crusade against mail-in voting by floating false claims that foreign governments could interfere in the 2020 election by tampering with mail ballots. US intelligence officials said in August that they had no evidence to support the claim, and Barr himself later confirmed that his allegations were unfounded.
Barr also in October defied longstanding DOJ policy and authorized federal prosecutors who suspected election-related offenses to take public investigative steps, even if those steps altered the outcome of the election. The decision was widely criticized by ethics watchdogs and election experts, and it prompted the resignation of the head of the DOJ's election crimes division.
Trump showered praise on Barr through most of his tenure as attorney general, saying at one point that he was "a man of unbelievable credibility and courage, and he's going to go down in the history of our country." But Barr's fortunes took a turn for the worse this fall, when he was unable to deliver on two politically charged investigations into Biden and former Obama administration officials that Trump demanded ahead of the general election.
The attorney general told Republican senators in September that Durham's investigation into the origins of the Russia probe would not conclude in time to release a public report before the November election. The news angered the president, who had long said the inquiry would show proof that the Obama administration and the "deep state" masterminded a plot to take him down by illegally launching the Russia investigation.
So far, the Durham probe has resulted in a criminal charge against a former FBI lawyer who pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators. But it has not uncovered evidence of a nefarious conspiracy against the president by his perceived political foes. Durham's investigation is ongoing, and Barr appointed him special counsel in October, under the same regulations that governed Mueller's 2017 appointment to the role.
Separately, The Washington Post reported in September that an internal DOJ investigation commissioned by Barr that focused on whether Obama-era officials improperly "unmasked" Flynn's name in intelligence reports formally closed without criminal charges or public report.
Trump made no secret of his anger with Barr amid the news that two DOJ investigations the conservative political sphere had hyped for months had come up empty before the election.
"To be honest, Bill Barr is going to go down as either the greatest attorney general in the history of the country or he's going to go down as, you know, a very sad situation," Trump told Fox News' Maria Bartiromo in October.
"Can't comment on that," Trump told the conservative outlet Newsmax TV when asked if he had confidence in Barr. "It's too early."
"I'm not happy, with all of the evidence I had. I can tell you that," the president added. "I am not happy."
In early December, Barr again stoked Trump's anger when he told The Associated Press that the DOJ and FBI had not discovered evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have affected the outcome of the election.
The revelation flew in the face of the Trump legal team's claims that Democrats conspired with "big media" to steal the election by engineering nationwide voter fraud and working with South American communist dictators (some of whom died years ago) to rig voting machines.
ABC News reported that Trump and Barr had an "intense" meeting at the White House after the AP interview was published. The DOJ also released a statement qualifying some of Barr's claims hours after his meeting with the president, and the Washington Post reported that Trump remained livid with Barr following their meeting.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to answer when asked later whether Trump still had confidence in his attorney general.
"The president, if he has any personnel announcements, you will be the first to know it," she told reporters.
The next day, Trump similarly refused to endorse Barr when asked if he had confidence in him, telling a reporter, "Ask me that in a number of weeks from now."
"They should be looking at all of this fraud," Trump said of Barr and the DOJ. "This is not civil. He thought it was civil. This is criminal stuff."
This month, Hunter Biden announced in a statement that federal prosecutors were investigating his "tax affairs." Subsequent media reports said that Barr worked behind the scenes to keep the tax probes under wraps, in accordance with department rules prohibiting prosecutors from taking overt investigative steps that could affect the outcome of an election.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump was so infuriated with the news that he discussed firing the attorney general during a White House meeting on Friday and had to be talked out of it by his aides.