President Donald Trump’s leading candidate for attorney general, William Barr, supported his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017—but only if the firing were done because of Comey’s behavior, not him opening a probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Barr expressed his opinion in an op-ed column in The Washington Post on May 12, 2017.
Barr, who served from 1991 to 1993 as attorney general under George H.W. Bush, said Comey failed in his duties as FBI head in presenting his results in mid-2016 publicly without consulting then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
In July 2017, Barr told a Post reporter that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference, should have considered political donations to Democratic politicians and connections to law firms that represented Democrats in choosing lawyers for his investigation.
However, Barr also defended in March 2018 then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s right to respond to accusations leveled by Trump about Sessions’s recusal from the Russia probe and other matters. “I think [Sessions] was reminding the American people of a key attribute that we need in an attorney general, and that is integrity. He’s saying, ‘Look, I’m calling things as I see it,'” he told USA Today.
Barr wrote in the May 2017 op-ed that Comey had usurped Lynch’s authority, and that Trump was correct in wanting a clean slate. But he argued that Trump couldn’t proceed in a fair evaluation of Comey’s performance without confirmation of Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general, to whom Comey would report.
Rosenstein penned a memo that spelled out the reasons for dismissal, which largely centered on alleged usurpation of Lynch’s position, and noted the unusual nature of an FBI director presenting prosecutorial information at a press conference when charges weren’t being pursued. Barr’s op-ed takes that memo at face value.
Barr denied that it was plausible that the president “acted to neuter the investigation into Russia’s role in the election” because Rosenstein retained control over the investigation due to Sessions’s recusal. He noted Rosenstein and the Justice Department’s National Security Division head were both career prosecutors and were first appointed by Obama to occupy top roles.
However, The New York Times reported June 29, 2018, that Rosenstein had expressed anger about how he was manipulated to provide justification for Comey’s firing, with sources stating he was “shaken,” “unsteady,” and “overwhelmed.” A Justice Department spokesperson denied the characterization. In September, The Times went on to report that Rosenstein had suggested secretly recording Trump and mused about invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows an unfit president to be removed from office. Rosenstein called this account “inaccurate and factually incorrect.”
Trump and his surrogates have also contradicted Rosenstein a number of times over Comey’s firing, stating that it was because of Comey’s authorization of a probe into Russia’s election involvement.
Obama’s second attorney general, Lynch, had met briefly with former President Bill Clinton at his request when both were at the same airport on separate private planes. This raised alarms about whether the two had discussed the active investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server that was then underway, and the perception regardless of what occurred. Lynch said at the time that the investigation was not discussed.
Lynch never formally recused herself, as Sessions did with the special counsel investigation into Russia, making the chain of command for Comey complicated. But Barr argues it was clear that Comey should have reported to the deputy attorney general, rather than taken matters into his own hands.