William Barr’s State of Emergency

Barr seems aware at times that he is gambling with his reputation. “Everyone dies,” he said with a matter-of-fact sigh in a TV interview last year. “I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that, you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries.” When we spoke in his office, he was critical of what he called Comey’s tendency to “wrap the institution” around himself. “I don’t say, ‘Gee, if you criticize me, you’re attacking the men and women of the department.’” he said. “B.S.,” he added. “I’ll live or die by my decisions.”

Barr’s willingness to weather controversy on the president’s behalf has not only caused consternation among some former friends and allies; it has given rise to considerable speculation about his motives. Why would a grandfather in semiretirement, who had already reached the pinnacle of his profession, sign up for this? Some wonder if Barr might still be hungry for influence, having been attorney general for only 17 months the first time. Others wonder whether he spent too much time watching Fox News during the Obama years and came out the other side an ideologue. And there are others who look at Barr’s support for Trump and see more consistency than contradiction. Barr, they say, hasn’t changed his values. Rather, he has found in Trump the perfect vehicle with which to move them forward.

“Those who think he’s a tool of Donald Trump are missing the point,” says Stuart Gerson, who led the Justice Department’s civil division during Barr’s first tour and then succeeded him, serving as acting attorney general during the first three months of Bill Clinton’s presidency. “If anything, it’s the other way around. Barr is vastly more intelligent than Donald Trump. What Trump gives Bill Barr is a canvas upon which to paint. Bill has longstanding views about how society should be organized, which can now be manifested and acted upon to a degree that they never could have before.”

As far as what Barr is hoping to do with his canvas, Gerson says he is committed to the “hierarchical” and “authoritarian” premise that “a top-down ordering of society will produce a more moral society.” That isn’t too far away from what Barr himself articulated in a 2019 speech at the University of Notre Dame. In Barr’s view, piety lay at the heart of the founders’ model of self-government, which depended on religious values to restrain human passions. “The founding generation were Christians,” Barr said. Goodness flows from “a transcendent Supreme Being” through “individual morality” to form “the social order.” Reason and experience merely serve to confirm the infallible divine law. That law, he said, is under threat from “militant secularists,” including “so-called progressives,” who call on the state “to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.” At their feet, Barr places mental illness, drug overdoses, violence and suicide. All these things, he said, are getting worse. All are “the bitter results of the new secular age.”

Barr started his career in the C.I.A. as an analyst, working on China and other matters. When I asked about the origin of his interest in the intelligence service, he responded indirectly, with an anecdote about telling his high school guidance counselor that he wanted to be C.I.A. director. It was tempting to link Barr’s career and conservatism with his father, Donald Barr, who served in the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s forerunner, during World War II. In 1940, as an undergraduate at Columbia, Donald wrote a controversial editorial for The Columbia Review, defending a speech by the university president that called upon the faculty to support the American war effort. “Most liberals,” he wrote, “do not think precisely.” As tempting as it was to see the son as part of some epigenetic chain of old-line conservatism, Barr cautioned me not to make such assumptions. “My father was like: ‘Do what you want to do. Do what you enjoy. Do something that you’re really interested in, because that’s what you’ll do best in.’”

Barr’s parents met at the University of Missouri in the early 1940s. Donald, who already spoke three languages, had been sent there by the Army to learn Italian. He spotted Mary Ahern, a young Irish-Catholic woman who had a master’s degree in English from Yale, through an open doorway, teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates, and was smitten. Ahern took some courting. She thought Donald was a “New York wolf,” Barr told me, and his background was also an issue; he was raised without much religion, but his father, William’s grandfather, was born a secular Jew. Upon joining the Army, Donald gave his religion as Dutch Reformed. He converted to Catholicism after he and Mary wed.

Donald Barr’s 26-page O.S.S. file, obtained from the National Archives, gives a detailed account of his transition from the military to intelligence work. In 1944, he shipped off to Europe. He suffered from hay fever and 20/200 vision; much of his time overseas was spent hospitalized with allergies. The next year, he was assigned to the O.S.S. His interviewer found him to be “a quiet, unassuming person … matured beyond his age.” In late 1945, he moved to Washington to begin work at the Interim Research and Intelligence Service, which would become the State Department’s in-house intelligence bureau.