WASHINGTON — 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 had already served once as the nation’s top law enforcement officer during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, they said that 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 Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Barr acted more as a defense lawyer for Trump than as the leader of the Justice Department.
He repeatedly declared that Mueller had cleared the president of a conspiracy with Russia and sympathized with the frustration Trump felt at the “relentless speculation” over his purported ties with Russia.
Barr said he gave access to the report to Trump’s lawyers, which gave them an opportunity to prepare their public defense in advance.
“Earlier this week, the president’s personal counsel requested and were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” Barr said. “The president’s personal lawyers were not permitted to make, and did not request, any redactions.”
Barr said he did so in accordance with the “practice followed under the Ethics in Government Act,” permitting those named in a report to read it before publication. However, that has not always been the practice. In 1998, independent counsel Ken Starr declined to let President Bill Clinton or his lawyers read his report on the Monica Lewinsky case before he sent it to Congress.
In the news conference, Barr gave a terse ‘‘no’’ when asked by a reporter if he was concerned that it might be improper to hold a news conference before the report was public. He brushed off questions about whether he was protecting the president, saying he wasn’t sure what the basis was to say he was being generous to Trump.
For supporters of 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: Trump was getting the attorney general he always wanted.
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 Barr’s expansive views of executive power and his conservative social and political ideology, it was not entirely a surprise that Barr would side with Trump against those who argued that he broke the law in his efforts to undermine 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 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 Sessions’ replacement, turns out to be an accurate road map to Barr’s handling of the Mueller report. He acknowledged Thursday that he disagreed with Mueller on several legal theories on potential obstruction.
At his Senate confirmation hearing, Barr defended Mueller as a longtime friend who would never involve himself in a ‘‘witch hunt’’ like the president has said.
But his tone toward the investigation shifted in recent weeks as he learned more and more about Mueller’s findings. He raised eyebrows at a congressional hearing last week when he said he believed the president’s campaign had been spied on, likely a reference to a secret surveillance warrant the FBI obtained to monitor the communications of a former Trump campaign associate.
A person familiar with his thinking told the Associated Press that Barr, who early in his career worked for the CIA, did not mean the word in a pejorative sense and was referring to intelligence collection activities. He also changed his take on the ‘‘witch hunt’’ question, saying it was all a matter of perspective and that someone who feels unfairly investigated would inevitably dislike the feeling.
Frank Montoya, a former FBI supervisor, said he had given Barr the benefit of the doubt but was concerned by the ways in which Barr’s thinking appeared to align with Trump's.
‘‘He can’t not know that we’re in highly partisan times,’’ Montoya said of Barr. ‘‘To throw fuel on the fire the way that he does, all that it does is reinforce the idea that Trump is right.’’
Barr’s untrammeled view of executive privilege goes back to the George H.W. Bush administration, when 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. 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, Barr has argued that the Supreme Court ruled wrongly in the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case. (More recently, he told Congress during his confirmation hearing that he viewed Roe v. Wade as “settled law.”)
Barr, who 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.”