WASHINGTON (AP) — Gathered in the small assembly hall in Little Rock, Arkansas, their chairs spaced 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart, the business leaders listen admiringly to the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
They ask Attorney General William Barr about elder fraud and other subjects. Each thanks Barr for his devotion and service, praising him as a patriot who’s working tirelessly to protect America and restore order.
But there are those who disagree. Outside, Black Lives Matter protesters approach the doors, screaming, chanting and banging on the windows. The business leaders strain to be heard over the din.
“We’ve been here an hour and now we all understand what you go through every day,” a middle-age banker tells Barr, “so thank you.”
Barr can expect this kind of praise when he appears Tuesday for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee — but only from its Republicans. To them, he’s a conservative stalwart, an unflappable foe of the left and its excesses and — most importantly — a staunch defender of President Donald Trump.
The reception from the Democrats will be closer to the hostility of Little Rock’s demonstrators.
In the course of roughly 18 months in office, the 70-year-old Barr has become inexorably linked to a norm-busting president with sagging popularity and uncertain reelection prospects.
His actions, including the investigation he launched into the Russia probe, have deepened criticism of him as Trump’s faithful protector. Democrats have suggested he should be impeached, and are holding hearings into what they say is the politicization of the Justice Department under his watch.
He came to the job with the reputation of an establishment Republican, and the expectation, by some, that he would temper the behavior of an impulsive and iconoclastic president. He has not, leading some to believe he has tailored his principles to conform with Trump’s views on politics and the law.
In fact, for decades Barr has made no secret of his commitment to law and order and his support for expansive presidential power. Those views have married neatly with a president who has repeatedly tested the limits of executive authority, a pairing that has benefited both men and perhaps allowed Barr to let down his hair more than ever before.
The people who know him insist that Barr is just being Barr — that he is not motivated by ambition or anything other than the opportunity to put his heartfelt beliefs into practice.
“He doesn’t have anything to prove from a professional or career standpoint,” said his longtime colleague and friend, attorney Chuck Cooper. “He’s been at the apex of the legal profession for a long time. And so, in that respect, he’s unlike any other attorney general. He’s already ascended to that pinnacle once before.”
Only one other attorney general has served two non-consecutive terms — John J. Crittenden, who held the job under presidents John Tyler and Millard Fillmore in the 19th century. Barr’s first stint was from 1991 to 1993, under President George H.W. Bush.
Then he left government work for a string of lucrative private-sector legal jobs until he answered Donald Trump’s call to replace Jeff Sessions, and was seen as a reasonable choice to restore normalcy to an agency riven with tumult.
Despite early indications of an askance view of the Russia investigation — he authored a memo months before his nomination critical of special counsel Robert Mueller’s efforts — he struck a soothing note at his confirmation hearing. He was confirmed 54-45, mostly along party lines.
But that support began to erode a month later after he cleared Trump of obstruction of justice allegations even when Mueller and his team had pointedly declined to do the same, and after he produced a summary letter of Mueller’s investigation that painted a more flattering portrait for the president than the special counsel had done.
He’s since initiated an investigation of the Russia probe that Trump supporters have embraced, but that Democrats see as vindictive and backward-looking.
He sought leniency in the sentencing of Trump ally Roger Stone — his idea alone, he insists, and a “righteous decision based on the merits.” The move promoted angry dissent in the Justice Department and the swift resignation of a well-regarded prosecutor, and though the judge did impose a sentence shorter than what the trial team had sought, Trump commuted the sentence anyway.
He also moved to dismiss the prosecution of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, a request the Justice Department expected would be simple but that has instead produced a pitched fight before a federal appeals court.
Trump and Barr have broken on occasion: Trump wanted a full-on prosecution of players in the Russia probe, like Andrew McCabe, and bristled when Barr asked him to stop tweeting about Roger Stone, saying that the tweets were making it impossible to do his job.
But largely, Barr has delivered, Trump has told confidants, including when he moved to drop charges against Flynn.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have accused Barr of acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than America’s chief law enforcement officer. For Barr, that’s a criticism easily shrugged off.
“I dismiss it because like many other talking points these days, there’s never any actual particular matter presented to support it, so I ignore it as just part of the general background noise,” Barr said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
At the end of the day, Barr insists his most controversial decisions have been right and just.
“I think the only way to handle this kind of job, especially in the kind of environment we are in, is to just put one foot in front of the other, and every time a decision is brought to you, you make a decision and walk away with a clear conscience,” Barr said.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.