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AG Barr's Motives Questioned After Wednesday's Testimony

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A political cartoon published this week shows President Trump in his signature dark suit and red tie with a wide grin. In the president's hand is a dog leash. At the other end of that leash sits a bulldog with Attorney General Bill Barr's face. And the quote from the president reads, "my service dog for emotional support." The cartoon reflects the way in which some view the relationship between President Trump and his attorney general, particularly after the attorney general's performance during the Senate hearing this week.

But Politico reporter Eliana Johnson writes that the relationship between the two men is a lot more complicated than this cartoon depicts. Eliana Johnson joins me now. Welcome.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Great to be with you.

CHANG: So the attorney general has taken a lot of hits from Democrats this week, who say that he's been acting more like the president's lawyer than the attorney general of the United States. But the job of the president's lawyer, that's a job that Barr actually resisted taking more than once, right?

JOHNSON: That's right. Barr turned down an offer to join the president's legal team, and he turned down an offer to join the vice president's legal team to represent Mike Pence in the Russia probe. He also turned down the attorney general job once and was convinced by his friends to take this job. His...

CHANG: So when Barr did finally agree to join the Trump administration, it sounds like there was this certain group of conservative lawyers who were very influential in that decision. These were lawyers in both his professional and social circles. Tell us how that played out.

JOHNSON: That's right. These are the people that Barr is close friends with and who he looks to for advice. One of them is Chuck Cooper, who represented Jeff Sessions in the Russia probe. Another one is Richard Cullen, who is Mike Pence's attorney in the Russia probe. And these are all people who worked, many of them, in the George H.W. Bush Justice Department and in the Reagan Justice Department.

So they're people who have been influential in American politics and in the Justice Department for 30 or 40 years and who have grown up together and fought a lot of political battles alongside each other. And as you can see, they're doing so again in the Trump administration but in a more behind-the-scenes way.

CHANG: Right. And this particular group of lawyers you're talking about, they're advocates for a theory of presidential power known as the unitary executive. Can you explain what that theory is?

JOHNSON: Yeah. So these lawyers focus on one particular line in the Constitution in Article 2 that outlines the executive powers that the president must take care that the laws be faithfully executed. And they believe that the president is the ultimate authority on the prosecutorial powers and he has broad authority to hire and fire anybody in the executive branch. That includes FBI directors and special prosecutors. So these people defended President Trump's right to fire Robert Mueller, no matter what he was thinking at the time he did so, and would have defended his right, most likely, to fire Bob Mueller.

CHANG: And how have we seen this theory, this theory of the unitary executive, play out in Barr's handling of the Mueller report so far?

JOHNSON: When he told reporters, in releasing it, that once Bob Mueller handed over that report and he said, this is not a report that Bob Mueller wrote for the public; this is a report that Bob Mueller wrote for me as the attorney general, Barr is very conscious that he believes he's the chief law enforcement officer of the country and that this report is, quote, "his baby," as he said, and that he had an absolute right to either release it or not as he saw fit. And that's something he defended in very contentious congressional hearings just a couple of days ago.

CHANG: So at the end of the day, as you've been watching Bill Barr conduct himself while in office, would you say that Barr is protecting the president personally, as many are accusing him of doing? Or is he protecting a particular interpretation of presidential power?

JOHNSON: I don't think we quite know yet. You have to remember he's only been in office for three months. I think we need to see a little bit more from him and see, when another test comes up, where if Bill Barr were to diverge from what this theory of unitary executive power would demand him to do and side with Trump, I think we'd know - OK, this is a Trump guy who's diverting from the principles he's believed in his whole life. But at this point, what many of his friends said were his principles and Trump's interests happen to align on this. And so - I think that's true. Now, if his principles and Trump's interests happen to diverge, it will be interesting to see what he does.

CHANG: Eliana Johnson writes for Politico. Thank you very much for joining us today.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.