Trump has long prized unquestioning personal loyalty in his attorneys general. When he learned that his first attorney general, longtime Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, planned to recuse himself from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, an irate Trump complained that he needed someone who would “protect” him, not stand down in his hour of need. Barr, who served as attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration and was re-confirmed to the position in February, has ably filled that role ever since: a man who sees the job as less about enforcing the law than about shielding the president from the consequences of breaking it.
The Ukraine matter is far from the first time that Barr has worked to conceal wrongdoing within the executive branch. Nearly three decades ago, he encouraged his then-boss to pardon six key figures in the Iran-Contra affair. This controversial move brought the most significant scandal in the Reagan administration, in which Bush served as vice president, to a quiet, clean end. The independent counsel in that matter, Lawrence Walsh, was irate; he complained that Bush had gummed up the investigation by withholding evidence, making misleading statements about his knowledge of the scandal, and refusing to be interviewed by prosecutors. By pardoning those already implicated, the president effectively foreclosed the possibility that the investigation would one day reach him. Upon hearing the news, Walsh publicly accused Bush of complicity in a “cover-up.”