Note: this article originally ran in the New York Times, and includes an interview with Checks & Balances member Stuart Gerson.
The attorney general embodies the combative culture and conservative ideology that animate the president and the Republican Party. Is he what the party looks like post-Trump?
WASHINGTON — When President Trump nominated William P. Barr as attorney general a year ago, establishment Republicans who had chafed at Mr. Trump’s takeover of their party were relieved. Between Mr. Barr’s work in the Reagan White House and his fast-track career under George Bush, he could be a bridge to the Republican Party they knew — and preferred.
How wrong they were.
Mr. Barr has eagerly embraced the most divisive and disputed aspects of the Trump agenda, much to the delight of the party’s hard-line conservatives who see him as an indispensable ally in their fight to push the country further to the right on issues like religious liberty, immigration and policing.
Other conservative attorneys general shared Mr. Barr’s relish for political battle. But as he attacks the Democratic Party, assails liberal culture and defends the president against accusations of abusing his office, Mr. Barr has wielded a maximalist view of executive power and adopted a blithely antagonistic, no-apologies style that set him apart from his predecessors.
That makes him a natural fit in a Republican Party that Mr. Trump has remade in his mold. But it worries critics in both parties who fear that Mr. Barr is eroding the Justice Department’s traditional independence in law enforcement. They point to his handling of the Mueller report, which he summarized in a letter widely seen as more favorable to Mr. Trump, and his appointment of a prosecutor to re-examine the opening of the Russia investigation, which Mr. Trump has long impugned.
To the conservatives who make up the most solid foundation of the president’s base — a wing of the Republican Party that is generally more uncompromising on social issues and enthusiastic about political combat with the left — Mr. Barr is the template of the public servant they envisioned when Mr. Trump promised to give them greater influence in his administration.
He is a devoted Catholic who has said he believes the nation needs a “moral renaissance” to restore Judeo-Christian values in American life. He has been unafraid to use his platform as the nation’s top law enforcement officer to fight the cultural changes they believe are making the country more inhospitable and unrecognizable, like rising immigration and secularism or new legal protections for L.G.B.T. people.
“Attorney General Barr represents an important conservative point of view that is really the heart of the Trump presidency,” said Frank Cannon, the president of the American Principles Project, a social conservative organization.
A series of assertive public appearances in recent weeks, laced with biting sarcasm aimed at adversaries on the left, have brought a sharper focus on Mr. Barr’s style and worldview, both of which share aspects with the president’s.
He has painted a picture of a country divided into camps of “secularists” — those who, he said recently, “seem to take a delight in compelling people to violate their conscience” — and people of faith. The depiction echoes Mr. Trump’s worldview, with the “us versus them” divisions that the president often stokes when he tells crowds at his rallies that Democrats “don’t like you.”
His politicization of the office is unorthodox and a departure from previous attorneys general in a way that feels uncomfortably close to authoritarianism, critics said.
“Barr has believed for a long time that the country would benefit from more authoritarianism. It would inject a stronger moral note into government,” said Stuart M. Gerson, who worked in the Bush Justice Department under Mr. Barr and is a member of Checks & Balances, a legal group that is among the attorney general’s leading conservative detractors. “I disagree with his analysis of power. We would be less free in the end.”