Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell

And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.

Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?

A deeper understanding of William Barr is emerging, and it reveals something profound and disturbing about the evolution of conservatism in 21st-century America.

Some people have held that Mr. Barr is simply a partisan hack — willing to do whatever it takes to advance the interests of his own political party and its leadership. This view finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In a Nov. 15 speech at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, he accused President Trump’s political opponents of “unprecedented abuse” and said they were “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”

It is hardly the first time Mr. Barr stepped outside of long-established norms for the behavior of attorneys general. In his earlier stint as attorney general, during the George H.W. Bush presidency, Mr. Barr took on the role of helping to disappear the case against Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-contra affair. The situation demonstrated that “powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office,” according to Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in that case. According to some critics, Mr. Barr delivered the partisan goods then, as he is delivering them now.

Another view is that Mr. Barr is principally a defender of a certain interpretation of the Constitution that attributes maximum power to the executive. This view, too, finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In the speech to the Federalist Society, he said, “Since the mid-’60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate.” In July, when President Trump claimed, in remarks to a conservative student group, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” it is reasonable to suppose this is his CliffsNotes version of Mr. Barr’s ideology.

Both of these views are accurate enough. But at least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.

In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, “We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith.”

In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.

Barr watchers will know that this is nothing new. In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group” was intolerable.

This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.

The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” he said. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” He added, “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”

Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.

It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. “George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who once held Mr. Barr’s position as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, of Mr. Barr’s theory. It’s almost beside the point to note, as the conservative lawyers group Checks & Balances recently wrote, that Mr. Barr’s view of history “has no factual basis.”

Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, “What does Bill Barr want?”

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.

Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.

Impeachment Investigators Exploring Whether Trump Lied to Mueller

As part of the Russia inquiry, President Trump had given written answers to questions from Robert S. Mueller III.

House Democrats are exploring whether President Trump lied in his written answers to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, a lawyer for the House told a federal appeals court on Monday, raising the prospect of an additional basis for an article of impeachment.

The acknowledgment refocused attention on a quiet debate among Democrats about whether any impeachment of Mr. Trump should go beyond the Ukraine affair and also accuse him of obstructing the Russia investigation. Additional evidence, hidden in grand jury files, that Mr. Trump may have lied under oath to Mr. Mueller could bolster the case for an additional article of impeachment, Democratic aides said.

The House lawyer’s statement was also striking because it came shortly after Mr. Trump said he may also be willing to provide written answers about the Ukraine matter to impeachment investigators.

“Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

His statement and the hearing, in a case over the House’s attempt to gain access to secret grand jury evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, came as witnesses and lawmakers jostled for leverage before a new round of impeachment hearings scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine who will appear before lawmakers on Tuesday, planned to testify that he was out of the loop at key moments during Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, according to an account of his prepared testimony.

Democrats conducting the inquiry added to their witness list an official at the American Embassy in Kyiv, David Holmes, who testified privately that he overheard Mr. Trump ask a top diplomat if Ukraine would move forward with investigations he sought. They also released transcripts of depositions by Mr. Holmes and David Hale, the under secretary of state for political affairs, that offered more details about the effort by Trump loyalists to pressure Ukraine for the investigations.

And House Republicans wrote to Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who attended the inauguration of Ukraine’s president this year, asking him to provide “any firsthand information you have about President Trump’s actions toward Ukraine.”

But the court hearing heightened attention on House Democrats’ longstanding suspicions about Mr. Trump’s responses to questions in the Russia investigation.

The hearing centered on a Federal District Court’s ruling last month that the House should be given access to secret grand jury evidence from the Mueller investigation immediately, and whether enforcement of that ruling should be stayed while the Justice Department’s appeal is fully litigated.

Later on Monday, the appellate panel decided to keep a stay of the lower-court ruling in place “pending further order of the court,” while issuing an expedited briefing schedule with arguments set for Jan. 3.

If the judiciary keeps the stay in place — including for the likely appeals — House Democrats appear unlikely to receive the grand jury evidence before they decide whether to move forward with an impeachment vote.

Still, the argument underscored that they already have evidence calling into question the honesty of Mr. Trump’s responses from the Mueller report and the recently concluded trial of Mr. Trump’s longtime friend and informal adviser Roger J. Stone Jr.

Mr. Trump had refused to let the special counsel’s office interview him. But in his written responses, which were appended to the Mueller report, he denied that he was aware of any communications between his campaign and WikiLeaks.

House lawyers had suggested in a Sept. 30 filing that some of the materials they were seeking bore in on whether Mr. Trump lied about that subject. And on Monday, Douglas Letter, the general counsel for the House, told a federal appeals court panel that impeachment investigators had an “immense” need to swiftly see the grand jury evidence — redacted portions of the Mueller report, as well as the underlying testimony transcripts they came from.

“Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” Mr. Letter said, adding, “I believe the special counsel said the president had been untruthful in some of his answers.

He was referring to congressional testimony in July when Mr. Mueller agreed with a lawmaker’s assertion that the president’s written responses “showed that he wasn’t always being truthful.”

Both the lawmaker in July and Mr. Letter on Monday were referring in particular to the question of whether Mr. Trump lied about his campaign’s advance knowledge of and contacts with WikiLeaks about its possession of hacked Democratic emails and plans to publish them.

Mr. Trump wrote that he was “not aware during the campaign of any communications” between “any one I understood to be a representative of WikiLeaks” and people associated with his campaign. Mr. Stone was convicted last week of lying to congressional investigators about his efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks and his discussions with the campaign.

I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him,” Mr. Trump also wrote of Mr. Stone, “nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.”

But the publicly available portions of the Mueller report suggest that evidence exists to the contrary. Several Trump aides, including Michael D. Cohen and Rick Gates, testified that they heard Mr. Trump discussing coming WikiLeaks releases over the phone.

And in October 2016 Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign chairman, wrote in an email that Mr. Stone had told the campaign “about potential future releases of damaging material” by WikiLeaks shortly before it began publishing more hacked emails.

Mr. Letter brought up redactions in the report associated with Mr. Stone and a redacted reference to an assertion by Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, to a grand jury.

Manafort said that shortly after WikiLeaks’ July 22, 2016, released of hacked documents, he spoke to Trump [redacted]; Manafort recalled that Trump responded that Manafort should [redacted] keep Trump updated,” the Mueller report said, citing grand jury material as the reason for the redactions.

The report went on to suggest that House investigators may see Mr. Manafort’s grand jury testimony as potentially corroborating Mr. Gates’s account of Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Stone about WikiLeaks.

“Deputy campaign manager Rick Gates said that Manafort was getting pressure about [redacted] information and that Manafort instructed Gates [redacted] status updates on upcoming releases,” the report said, citing an F.B.I. interview with Mr. Gates.

Mr. Letter told the court, “The Manafort situation shows so clearly that there is evidence, very sadly, that the president might have provided untruthful answers,” and added that it “might be part of an impeachment inquiry.”

The Mueller report cited additional evidence from Mr. Gates that Mr. Trump did have discussions about the content or timing of the future release of hacked emails.

For example, Mr. Gates also told investigators that about that same time, he was with Mr. Trump in a car to an airport when Mr. Trump received a call. After something that is redacted in the public version of the report, it recounts that after Mr. Trump hung up, he told Mr. Gates “that more releases of damaging information would be coming,” the report said.

Attorney General William P. Barr permitted the House Judiciary Committee to see most of the Mueller report, including portions that are redacted from the public version because they pertained to continuing cases, but he has refused to let it see material that is subject to secrecy rules because it was presented to a grand jury.

In July, House lawmakers petitioned the chief judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, Beryl A. Howell, for an order allowing them to gain access to that material too. Their court filings in that matter were the first time that the House formally pronounced itself engaged in an impeachment inquiry; there is precedent, including in Watergate, permitting the House to get grand jury information for impeachment proceedings.

Judge Howell ruled in October that the Judiciary Committee should be permitted to see the grand jury material in the report and its underlying basis. But the Justice Department appealed that ruling, arguing that the Watergate precedent was wrong and Congress had no right to see grand jury evidence even for impeachment purposes.

The appeals court panel includes Judge Neomi Rao, a former Trump White House official whom he recently appointed to the bench; Judge Judith W. Rogers, a 1994 appointee of President Bill Clinton; and Thomas B. Griffith, a 2005 appointee of President George W. Bush.

Establishment Republicans thought he was one of them.

William Barr had returned to private life after his first stint as attorney general when he sat down to write an article for The Catholic Lawyer. It was 1995, and Mr. Barr saw an urgent threat to religion generally and to Catholicism, his faith, specifically. The danger came from the rise of “moral relativism,” in Mr. Barr’s view. “There are no objective standards of right and wrong,” he wrote. “Everyone writes their own rule book.”

And so, at first, it seemed surprising that Mr. Barr, now 69, would return after 26 years to the job of attorney general, to serve Donald Trump, the moral relativist in chief, who writes and rewrites the rule book at whim.

But a close reading of his speeches and writings shows that, for decades, he has taken a maximalist, Trumpian view of presidential power that critics have called the “imperial executive.” He was a match, all along, for a president under siege. “He alone is the executive branch,” Mr. Barr wrote of whoever occupies the Oval Office, in a memo to the Justice Department in 2018, before he returned.

Now, with news reports that his review into the origins of the Russian investigation that so enraged Mr. Trump has turned into a full-blown criminal investigation, Mr. Barr is arousing fears that he is using the enormous power of the Justice Department to help the president politically, subverting the independence of the nation’s top law enforcement agency in the process.

Why is he giving the benefit of his reputation, earned over many years in Washington, to this president? His Catholic Lawyer article suggests an answer to that question. The threat of moral relativism he saw then came when “secularists used law as a weapon.” Mr. Barr cited rules that compel landlords to rent to unmarried couples or require universities to treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group.” He reprised the theme in a speech at Notre Dame this month.

Barr uses the same language and ideas in an article and speech separated by decades.

1995

Article in The Catholic Lawyer, “Legal Issues in a New Political Order”

Highlighted text appears in both quotations

2019

Remarks to the Law School and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame

In 1995 and now, Mr. Barr has voiced the fears and aspirations of the conservative legal movement. By helping Mr. Trump, he’s protecting a president who has succeeded in confirming more than 150 judges to create a newly conservative judiciary. The federal bench now seems more prepared to lower barriers between church and state and reduce access to abortion — a procedure that Mr. Barr, in his 1995 article, included on a list of societal ills that also included drug addiction, venereal diseases and psychiatric disorders.

In his unruffled and lawyerly way, Mr. Barr emerged as the president’s most effective protector in the spring, when he limited damage from the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election by shaping the public narrative of the Mueller report before he released any of it.

In his pursuit of investigating the investigators, he even traveled to Britain and Italy to meet with intelligence officials there to persuade them to help it along. Now it is possible the Justice Department could bring charges against its own officials and agents for decisions they made to investigate Trump campaign advisers in the fraught months around the 2016 election, when the Russian government was mounting what the Mueller report called “a sweeping and systematic” effort to interfere.

This criminal investigation seems ominous in the context of Mr. Barr’s other moves.

Dec. 19, 1991, Attorney General William P. Barr speaks with reporters. Assistant Attorney General Robert Mueller stands at right.Barry Thumma/AP Photo

His Justice Department recently declined to investigate a whistle-blower’s complaint that the president was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” and advised the acting director of national intelligence not to send the complaint to Congress. Last week, dozens of government inspectors general warned in a letter to the Justice Department that its position “could seriously undermine the critical role whistle blowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, abuse and misconduct across the federal government.”

So while Rudolph Giuliani is freelancing American diplomacy as the president’s personal lawyer, often leaving bedlam in his wake, and Mick Mulvaney flails as acting chief of staff, Mr. Barr has used the Justice Department, with precision, on the president’s behalf. The New York City Bar Association complained a few days ago that Mr. Barr “appears to view his primary obligation as loyalty to the president individually rather than to the nation.”

William Barr (Billy, when he was young) grew up in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan with a framed Barry Goldwater presidential campaign poster in the foyer, according to Vanity Fair. His mother, who was of Irish descent, taught at Columbia University. His father, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, taught at Columbia, too, and then became the headmaster of the elite Dalton Schoolleaving after 10 years amid criticism over his authoritarian approach to student discipline.

He went to high school at the equally elite Horace Mann and to college at Columbia, where he majored in government and then got a master’s degree in government and Chinese studies. Mr. Barr went to work for the C.I.A. in Washington in 1973 and attended George Washington University Law School at night.

He joined the Reagan White House in 1982, where he sought to curb regulation. After George H.W. Bush was elected president in 1988, he became director of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, which provides legal advice to the president and all executive agencies.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Barr to express his views on executive power. He warned in one of his early opinions, in July 1989, of congressional “encroachments” on presidential authority. “Only by consistently and forcefully resisting such congressional incursions can executive branch prerogatives be preserved,” he wrote. Some of his Republican colleagues remember being taken aback.

Bill’s view on the separation of powers was not overlapping authority keeping all branches in check, but keeping the other branches neutralized, leaving a robust executive power to rule. George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who preceded Mr. Barr as head of the Office of Legal Counsel.

Mr. Barr also argued that the president had the “inherent authority” to order the F.B.I. to abduct people abroad, in violation of an international treaty principally written by the United States. This view reversed the position that the Office of Legal Counsel had taken nine years earlier. When Congress asked to see Mr. Barr’s opinion, he refused, even as the government defended the abduction of a man in Mexico accused of participating in the killing of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. The charges against the man were dismissed. It took four years for his opinion to come to light.

You have a secret opinion that violated the internal rules of the Justice Department” and “diminished America’s reputation as a country that operates by the rule of law,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale law professor who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel and advised the State Department. “At the time, we thought that was as bad as it was going to get.”

After becoming deputy attorney general in 1990, he continued to push the limits on questions of presidential power. He told the first President Bush that he didn’t need congressional approval to invade Iraq. Mr. Bush asked for it anyway.

Mr. Barr with President George H.W. Bush in 1992.Marcy Nighswander/Associated Press

Mr. Barr, who took over the department in the fall of 1991, also urged Mr. Bush to pardon all six of the Reagan administration officials who faced criminal charges in an arms-for-hostages deal at the heart of the Iran-contra scandal. The president took his advice.

When Mr. Bush lost his bid for re-election, Mr. Barr went back into private practice before taking jobs as the general counsel first for GTE and then Verizon. He served on the boards of several religious groups, including the Catholic Information Center, a self-described “intellectual hub,” affiliated with the ultraconservative order Opus Dei.

Those groups include other conservative Washington insiders, such as Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society. Mr. Leo has also served on the board of the Catholic Information Center and he came out strongly in favor of Mr. Trump’s nomination of Mr. Barr for attorney general.

In a sense, both Mr. Barr and Mr. Leo have found parallel ways to use the Trump administration as a vehicle for their causes. Mr. Leo has enormous influence from outside the government on the selection of judicial nominees. And from the inside, Mr. Barr plays a role in federal judicial appointments and has supported a Justice Department task force set up to look for cases of religious discrimination.

When Mr. Barr undercut the Mueller report, he lost some supporters. While delaying its release, he presented the conclusions as far less damning for President Trump than Mr. Mueller found them to be. (For example, Mr. Barr said that the special counsel did not find sufficient evidence of a crime when in fact Mr. Mueller had not exonerated Mr. Trump of wrongdoing.)

Not in my memory has a sitting attorney general more diminished the credibility of his department on any subject,” wrote Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare.

Despite criticism, Mr. Barr has continued to champion the presidency — and this president. But on Friday, a federal judge in Washington ruled against the Justice Department’s effort to block Congress from getting grand jury evidence obtained in the Mueller investigation. The department has also asked a federal judge to block a subpoena from the Manhattan district attorney for eight years of Mr. Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns.

“From my perspective,” Mr. Barr told Jan Crawford of CBS News in May, “the idea of resisting a democratically elected president and basically throwing everything at him and, you know, really changing the norms on the grounds that ‘we have to stop this president,’ that is where the shredding of our norms and our institutions is occurring.”

In other words, amazingly, it wasn’t President Trump, or Attorney General Barr, who was violating the norms of American governance. It was their critics.

Since Watergate, a crucial norm of Justice Department independence has prevented presidents from ordering or meddling in investigations for partisan reasons.

In 2001, Mr. Barr praised the first President Bush for leaving the Justice Department alone. Mr. Bush’s White House “appreciated the independence of Justice,” Mr. Barr said. “We didn’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a difference between being a government lawyer and representing an individual in his personal capacity in a criminal case.”

Now, Mr. Barr seems hard-pressed to maintain a semblance of those boundaries. The criminal investigation of the origins of the Russia investigation that he ordered is official government business. It’s headed by an experienced prosecutor, John H. Durham, the United States attorney for Connecticut, and it’s supposed to be on the up and up.

Mr. Barr in May testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

But when Mr. Barr told Congress in April that he thought “spying” on the Trump campaign by American intelligence agencies occurred — the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray, told Congress that “spying” was “not the term I would use” — he echoed President Trump’s conspiracy theory of being a victim of the “deep state.” And in the last month, Mr. Barr has found his review mixed up with the machinations of Mr. Giuliani, who was directed by Mr. Trump to investigate the 2016 election and the Biden family in Ukraine.

Mr. Trump made the overlap explicit when he lumped Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Barr together in his July phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky, according to notes released by the White House. Mr. Barr was reportedly “surprised and angry” by the president’s reference, and a Justice Department representative has denied he had any contacts with Mr. Zelensky.

Then, Mr. Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, brought up Mr. Barr’s review of the Russia investigation at his news conference on Oct. 17 in defense of Mr. Trump’s request to Mr. Zelensky for “a favor” and information. (“So you’re saying the president of the United States, the chief law enforcement person, cannot ask somebody to cooperate with an ongoing public investigation into wrongdoing?” Mr. Mulvaney asked.)

The White House’s use of the Justice Department as a shield in the Ukraine scandal risks leaving Mr. Barr’s review “hopelessly compromised,” tweeted the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, an alumnus of the Office of Legal Counsel who has defended Mr. Barr.

And in blockbuster testimony before Congress last Tuesday, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, said that he and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who was conveying Mr. Trump’s orders concerning Ukraine, discussed the possibility that Ukraine’s prosecutor would make a public statement about “investigations, potentially in coordination with Attorney General Barr’s probe.” Either people in the president’s circle are using Mr. Barr as a pawn, or he’s in deeper than he has said.

Either way, maybe the lesson is the same one that applies throughout the administration: The fallout from the president’s maneuvering taints the people around him. The longer Mr. Barr stays in office, the more that Mr. Trump will look for the attorney general to do for him.

When Mr. Mueller closed up shop, he left several cases pending with the Justice Department,including charges against the Trump operative Roger Stone, which could end with disclosures at trial that damage the president (Mr. Stone has pleaded not guilty). What if Mr. Trump would rather make cases like these go away, with pardons or other inducements? Will Mr. Barr go along?

Mr. Barr has echoed President Trump’s conspiracy theory of being a victim of the “deep state.” Doug Mills/The New York Times

During the Bush administration, in a more moderate time, Mr. Barr worked for a buttoned-down president who called for a “kinder” and “gentler” strain of Republicanism. Now he has a boss who calls the impeachment process “a lynching,” Republican critics “human scum” and the news media “the enemy of the American people.”

As the buttons fly off, Mr. Barr still seems unperturbed. He’s the perfect attorney general for President Trump. Not so much, it seems, for the country.

Tense Relationship Between Barr and Giuliani Complicates Trump Impeachment Defense

The president’s two highest-profile lawyers are struggling to get on the same page

WASHINGTON—Attorney General William Barr called President Trump in April with a question: What was Rudy Giuliani doing?

Mr. Trump had just avoided criminal charges with the release of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian electoral interference. But Mr. Giuliani was on television attacking former White House counsel Don McGahn, a longtime friend of the attorney general who had testified to investigators about some of the most notable incidents in the report, including Mr. Trump’s efforts to seek Mr. Mueller’s dismissal.

Why, Mr. Barr wanted to know, was the president’s private lawyer making a spectacle of himself rather than declaring victory in the Mueller investigation and moving on, according to a person who paraphrased the conversation. Mr. Barr wanted the president to tell Mr. Giuliani, in effect, to knock it off.

Five months later, Mr. Trump’s two highest-profile lawyers are again struggling to get on the same page, this time in the face of an impeachment inquiry launched by congressional Democrats last week. The president’s relationships with his private lawyer who once aspired to be his attorney general and the man who currently has that post are complicating White House efforts to build a legal and public-relations strategy to keep Mr. Trump in office.

Mr. Trump is receiving advice from two very different lawyers: Mr. Giuliani, who blankets the airwaves morning and evening with combative interviews and is prone to exaggeration; and Mr. Barr, a more measured figure but one who has drawn criticism for appearing overly close to Mr. Trump. As Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani’s job is to defend the president; as attorney general, Mr. Barr’s is to defend the Justice Department and the institution of the presidency.

Yet Mr. Trump at times refers to the two men almost interchangeably. In a July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Mr. Trump pressed his counterpart to investigate Democrat Joe Biden, Mr. Trump didn’t draw a distinction between the roles of Messrs. Giuliani and Barr, saying repeatedly that he would have both of them call to discuss the possible Biden investigation and other matters.

“When he was in private life, Trump was accustomed to having lawyers where he was the client, he would give directives and they’d do their best to fulfill his directives,” a former senior administration official said. “The government works a little bit differently. That was something he didn’t know, didn’t appreciate and I’m not sure if he’s ever fully come to terms with.”

Mr. Barr was surprised and angry to discover weeks later that the president had lumped him together with Mr. Giuliani on the phone call with Mr. Zelensky, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Justice Department said Mr. Trump never asked Mr. Barr to contact the Ukrainians.

House committees on Monday subpoenaed Mr. Giuliani for documents related to his efforts to pressure Ukraine to probe Mr. Biden. Mr. Giuliani didn’t respond to a question about whether he would comply.

Democrats have used the Trump-Zelensky phone call to raise questions about Mr. Barr’s own conduct. “I do think the attorney general has gone rogue,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Friday on CNN. “Since he was mentioned in all of this, it’s curious that he would be making decisions about how the complaint would be handled.”

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani arrives at a Trump rally in August in Manchester, N.H. PHOTO: ELISE AMENDOLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Some argued he should have recused himself from legal decisions surrounding a whistleblower complaint about Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky and other matters which ultimately led House Democrats to launch a formal impeachment inquiry.

The Justice Department initially blocked the complaint from being turned over to Congress, advising the director of national intelligence in early September that it didn’t constitute an urgent concern that required reporting to the intelligence committees. Justice Department lawyers then said they didn’t find enough evidence to warrant opening a criminal investigation into possible campaign-finance violations.

Mr. Barr didn’t believe it was necessary to recuse himself from deliberations given that he didn’t know until later that the president had invoked his name on the call, but nonetheless didn’t oversee the review, an official said.

In the days since House Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry, Mr. Giuliani has been a near-constant fixture on TV, declaring himself a whistleblower and confirming he would deliver a paid speech at a Kremlin-backed conference, only to reverse himself hours later. Mr. Barr, in contrast, departed for Italy for a previously scheduled trip and hasn’t spoken publicly.

On Monday, a Justice Department official said Mr. Barr had asked the president to make introductions in several countries that may have information relevant to a federal probe into the origins of the Mueller investigation, which Mr. Trump has repeatedly decried as a “witch hunt.”

One such introduction was to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom Mr. Trump recently called at Mr. Barr’s request, two government officials said. The FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 after the Australian government tipped off the U.S. that another foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign appeared to have foreknowledge of the release of hacked material by Russia.

Despite legal careers that intersected under Mr. Trump, people close to Mr. Barr say he and Mr. Giuliani have never been close and that he is privately mystified by what many in conservative legal circles view as Mr. Giuliani’s meddling in matters that should be handled by officials in government. Mr. Barr has privately told associates that he believes Mr. Giuliani’s behavior in general isn’t helpful to the administration.

Mr. Trump likes and respects Mr. Giuliani but his perception of him is “cyclical” and varies depending on the day, a person close to the president said. The president so far appears to appreciate Mr. Giuliani’s very public defense of their Ukraine strategy. On Wednesday, speaking at the United Nations, Mr. Trump called Mr. Giuliani a “great lawyer” and said: “I’ve watched the passion that he’s had on television over the last few days. I think it’s incredible the way he’s done.”

The only person that likes Rudy on TV right now is Trump,” said another person close to the president, adding that Mr. Trump “likes people who get on TV and fight for him.”

Mr. Giuliani said he hasn’t heard of any frustrations with him. Asked about criticism of his attacks on Mr. McGahn, he said in an interview that he wasn’t aware of Mr. Barr’s concerns. “Maybe he should notice that McGahn hasn’t testified,” Mr. Giulani said, referring to a subpoena for Mr. McGahn’s testimony from a House committee investigating Mr. Trump’s efforts to curtail the Mueller investigation. “I love when people Monday morning quarterback what you decide as a lawyer.”

Since joining the president’s legal team in April 2018, Mr. Giuliani has developed a reputation for combative TV interviews in which he has made stunning admissions—such as declaring last May that the president had reimbursed his former lawyer for a 2016 payment to a porn star—and has repeatedly had to walk back incorrect statements, such as his assertion in January that negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow had continued through Election Day. Mr. Barr, in contrast, is blunt yet more careful in his public statements.

Mr. Giuliani has known the president for decades, but bolstered his standing with Mr. Trump with his loyal support of his campaign in 2016. Mr. Trump didn’t always return the favor. He often needled the former mayor for falling asleep on long flights, and joked about whether Mr. Giuliani was looking at cartoons on his iPad, a former aide said.

Key Moments From Rough Transcript of Trump's Call With Ukraine

Key Moments From Rough Transcript of Trump’s Call With Ukraine
A call record released by the White House shows President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. WSJ reads the key moments from the rough transcript of the call.

Mr. Trump also berated Mr. Giuliani in front of others at the wedding of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in 2017. The president complained that Mr. Giuliani was spitting while he was talking and ordered him to stand elsewhere, the aide said.

After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape weeks before the election in which Mr. Trump was captured making lewd comments about women, few advisers were willing to go on the Sunday talk shows to defend the candidate. Mr. Giuliani taped all five shows—after which Mr. Trump attacked him for his performance. “Man, Rudy, you sucked. You were weak. Low energy,” the candidate told him, according to a book by two former campaign aides, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.

Mr. Giuliani rarely complained about such treatment, jockeying with other aides and advisers to sit next to Mr. Trump at dinner or on the plane. “Rudy never wanted to be left out,” one former aide said. “If you were ever between Rudy and the president, look out. You were going to get trampled.”

After the election, Mr. Giuliani was eager for an administration post—foremost, that of attorney general. He didn’t get it.

Yet Mr. Trump valued his loyalty. In staff meetings at the White House, the president would pre-empt complaints about Mr. Giuliani’s behavior on television by interrupting and making clear that he appreciated how hard the former mayor was fighting for him.

“Everyone shuts up after that,” a White House aide said.

Mr. Trump didn’t know Mr. Barr well before tapping him as the country’s top prosecutor on the recommendation of his legal advisers. Their relationship grew stronger during the final stages of the Mueller investigation, an administration official said, adding that Mr. Trump was pleased with the way his attorney general handled the end of the probe. In the months since, Mr. Trump has often privately praised Mr. Barr, and the two speak regularly.

Mr. Barr unrolled the Mueller team’s findings in a way that favored Mr. Trump, prompting criticism that he appeared overly interested in defending the president and risked the Justice Department’s independence from the White House. It was Mr. Barr who determined, along with then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that Mr. Trump hadn’t obstructed justice, after Mr. Mueller opted not to make a decision on that matter, citing a Justice Department policy barring the indictment of sitting presidents.

Mr. Barr served as attorney general under the first Bush administration and later became executive vice president and general counsel of a telecommunications company and a private lawyer before Mr. Trump tapped him as attorney general in December. Mr. Giuliani, too, was a high-ranking Justice Department official and Manhattan’s top prosecutor in the late 1980s, but had left that post by the time Mr. Barr became attorney general under George H.W. Bush.

In an interview for an oral history of the Bush presidency in 2001, Mr. Barr, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993, alluded to Mr. Giuliani’s reputation for charting his own path. Mr. Barr said the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office was the hardest to coordinate with, but favorably compared his U.S. attorney there to Mr. Giuliani, who held that post until 1989.

“My New York guy wasn’t Rudy Giuliani,” Mr. Barr said of Otto Obermaier, the Manhattan U.S. attorney until 1993. “He wasn’t that independent, but he basically ignored 50 percent of what I said.”