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WASHINGTON - William Barr is stepping down as attorney general, ending a tenure in which critics say he repeatedly used the Justice Department to aid President Donald Trump's allies only to have the president turn on him when he did not bring charges against those seen as political foes and disputed claims of widespread election fraud.
Trump revealed the move on Twitter, writing that he and Barr had a 'nice meeting” at the White House, and that Barr would 'be leaving just before Christmas to spend the holidays with his family.”
Trump also posted a copy of Barr's resignation letter, in which Barr indicated that he had provided the president an 'update” on the department's review of voter fraud allegations.
Barr's letter said he was 'greatly honored” to have served in the administration, and heaped praise on Trump for his 'many successes and unprecedented achievements.” Trump on Twitter claimed of Barr, 'Our relationship has been a very good one, he has done an outstanding job!” But in public and behind the scenes, the men's relationship had significantly soured on a number of fronts.
Trump had expressed frustration with Barr in recent days because Barr did not reveal before the election that Hunter Biden, President-elect Joe Biden's son, was under investigation by the Justice Department. He told Fox News this weekend that Barr 'should have stepped up” on the matter.
'All he had to do is say an investigation's going on,” Trump said, adding later, 'When you affect an election, Bill Barr, frankly, did the wrong thing.”
Before that, Trump had been fuming at his attorney general for not taking public pre-election steps in a separate probe, run by U.S. Attorney in Connecticut John Durham, that is examining the FBI's investigation of Trump's 2016 campaign. That anger intensified recently when Barr publicly broke with the president and declared that he had 'not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” while virtually simultaneously revealing that he secretly had made Durham a special counsel in October.
The move gave Durham enhanced legal and political protection to continue his work, but because it was not announced until after the election, it had no political benefit for Trump.
On Wednesday, Hunter Biden announced that he was under investigation by federal prosecutors in Delaware for possible tax crimes. Since 2018, according to people familiar with the matter, federal agents have been exploring whether Hunter Biden did not report income from China-related business deals - a politically explosive probe that probably will challenge the Justice Department in the incoming administration.
That the probe had been largely kept under wraps, vexed Trump and helped the president speed his deteriorating relationship with Barr.
Barr's letter indicated that his last day would be Dec. 23. Trump wrote on Twitter that Barr would be replaced on an acting basis by the Justice Department's No. 2 official, Jeffrey Rosen, and that Rosen would be replaced by his own top deputy, Richard Donoghue.
Barr took over as Trump's second attorney general in February 2019 after the president ousted former senator Jeff Sessions from the position. Barr came on just as special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election was winding down. And when Mueller delivered to the attorney general his final investigative report, Barr was thrust into one of his first major controversies.
Before releasing Mueller's report publicly, Barr described to Congress what he termed the special counsel's 'principal conclusions” - that there was not evidence to demonstrate a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that Mueller had reached no determination on whether Trump had sought to obstruct justice. Barr further wrote that he and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had reviewed the case themselves and determined that obstruction charges were not warranted.
That description, which belied far more damning evidence against Trump in Mueller's full report, so infuriated the special counsel team that Mueller wrote a letter to Barr complaining that he 'did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the investigation. But even when Barr ultimately released the full report, he did so only after holding a news conference and essentially repeating Trump's long-held talking point that there had been no collusion, and no obstruction.
Critics say the moves were part of what would turn about to be an extensive effort to undermine Mueller's work, to the benefit of Trump and his friends. Barr appointed Durham, to review the Russia investigation for possible impropriety, and he tapped another U.S. attorney, Jeff Jensen in St. Louis, to examine one of the cases Mueller brought against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Barr's Justice Department ultimately moved to throw out that case - even though Flynn already had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. Barr also personally intervened in another case brought by Mueller against longtime Trump friend Roger Stone, reducing the sentencing recommendation offered by career prosecutors.
Barr's actions sparked intense controversy, with thousands of Justice Department alumni calling on him to resign in an open letters. Inside the Justice Department, too, morale plummeted, with many career employees feeling they were not supported by the man at the top.
Barr, though, defended his interventions - saying the facts of each case required them - and in September famously launched a broadside against the department's career prosecutors, asserting that they too often inject themselves into politics and go 'headhunting” for high-profile targets.
Even outside the Russia investigation, Barr was one of Trump's most loyal and effective Cabinet secretaries, often emphasizing the commander in chief's public talking points and using the might of the Justice Department to defend him. Barr echoed some of the president's attacks on mass mail-in voting, making exaggerated claims of possible fraud. He orchestrated a massive show of force against racial justice demonstrators in Washington, even personally asking for the removal of protesters around Lafayette Square just before Trump walked across the area to pose for a photo in front of a near by church.
His department also intervened in the defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who says Trump raped her years ago, trying to substitute the U.S. government - rather than Trump himself - as the defendant in the case.
Barr's defenders note that he has long held an expansive view of presidential power, and what some see as him serving Trump's interests is more accurately him trying to bolster the office of the president. Barr served as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, and he has long advocated for a strong executive branch.
Barr, too, did not always make moves that pleased Trump. While the Justice Department investigated former FBI director James Comey and former deputy director Andrew McCabe - both frequent targets of Trump's criticism - for possible crimes, officials closed both cases without bring charges. Durham, too, made no public moves in the weeks before the November election, frustrating Trump, who had hoped the prosecutor would vindicate his attacks on the Russia probe and prosecute his political allies.
The lack of movement on the Durham case seemed to significantly stress Barr and Trump's relationship. In the weeks before the election, Trump had publicly pressured his attorney general to pursue his foes and declined to say whether he would retain Barr in a second term.