Mary Barr, an observant Catholic, sent William and his three brothers to Corpus Christi elementary school. Even there, Barr was an outlier. In the first grade, he delivered a speech in favor of Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidential campaign. Later, he declared his support for Richard Nixon, and a nun promised to pray for him. In high school, at Horace Mann, Barr—known then as Billy—presented fellow-students with a line-by-line exegesis of the Constitution. One classmate told me that Barr delighted in intellectual combat: “That smug, low-key demeanor—he really loved to push people’s buttons.” Garrick Beck, another classmate, disliked Barr’s politics but admired his integrity. Even then, he said, Barr was convinced that only a strong President could protect America from threats. “How else does a nice guy like Barr defend this boorish tycoon?” Beck said, of Trump. “I think he is doing it because he is a true believer.”
When Barr was an undergraduate, at Columbia, his classmates marched against the war in Vietnam. Barr wanted instead to buttress American power. He had told a guidance counsellor that he hoped one day to lead the C.I.A., and, during breaks from school, he spent two summers as an intern there. In 1973, he finished a master’s degree in Government and Chinese Studies and returned to the C.I.A. as an intelligence analyst. At the time, a Senate investigation—known as the Church Committee—was uncovering decades of abuses at the C.I.A., and laws were being passed to curtail them. Barr later recalled the effort as a kind of assault, delivering “body blows” to the agency.
Barr spent two years as an analyst, but he was also considering a career in law. He started taking night classes at George Washington University Law School, and, in 1975, he transferred to the agency’s Office of Legislative Counsel. The following year, George H. W. Bush became the C.I.A. director, and Barr helped prepare him for testimony on Capitol Hill. One hearing involved a bill that would require the C.I.A. to send a written notification to Americans whose mail the agency had secretly opened. Among the bill’s sponsors was Bella Abzug, a liberal Democrat who represented Barr’s old neighborhood in New York. As a defense attorney, Abzug had won a stay of execution for Willie McGee, a black man convicted of raping a white woman in Mississippi; she had also represented several Americans accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being Communists. The C.I.A. spied on her for twenty years, at times opening her mail.
As Abzug and her colleagues grilled Bush about the C.I.A.’s activities, Barr saw a chance to impress the new director. “I went up and sat in the seat that’s behind the witness,” he recalled in a 2001 oral history of the Bush Administration. “Someone asked him a question, and he leaned back and said, ‘How the hell do I answer this one?’ I whispered the answer in his ear, and he gave it, and I thought, ‘Who is this guy? He listens to legal advice when it’s given.’ ”
When Barr began his career in government, the idea that the Presidency was too weak might have been considered eccentric, even radical. Mostly, people were concerned that it had grown too strong. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, the former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published an influential book called “The Imperial Presidency,” in which he enumerated the habits of potential autocrats: “The all-purpose invocation of ‘national security,’ the insistence on executive secrecy, the withholding of information from Congress, the refusal to spend funds appropriated by Congress, the attempted intimidation of the press, the use of the White House as a base for espionage and sabotage directed against the political opposition.”
Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, and embodied an image that was anything but imperial. He carried his own luggage, enrolled his daughter in public school, and shunned “Hail to the Chief” as an excessive display of pomp. More important, he enacted reforms that curtailed executive-branch power. He signed strict ethics legislation that empowered independent counsels and inspectors general to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics, including the conservative legal scholar Antonin Scalia, complained that the changes crippled the Presidency, but the new regulations had broad support from Congress and from the public.
With Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, things began to change. The Republican Party, after three decades as a minority in Congress, took control of the Senate—part of a conservative resurgence that Reagan hailed as “morning in America.” In 1982, the White House hired Barr as a deputy assistant director for legal policy. He fell in with a like-minded group of young lawyers, who began devising a legal armature for the executive branch as it tried to restore its power.
In 1986, Reagan appointed Scalia to the Supreme Court. That same year, aides sent Attorney General Edwin Meese a report, recommending steps to widen the power of the Presidency. Reagan, they said, should veto more legislation, and decline to enforce laws that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch.” The report outlined a legal argument that the President had unrestricted control of all executive-branch functions, and also questioned the constitutionality of special counsels and inspectors general. In a speech, Meese argued that even Supreme Court rulings should not be viewed as “the supreme law of the land.” (Two years later, Meese resigned, amid accusations of helping to steer federal contracts to a friend.)
In 1987, an independent counsel was appointed to investigate whether a Justice Department official named Ted Olson had lied to Congress during testimony regarding the Environmental Protection Agency. Meese and other conservatives challenged the move as unconstitutional. In their view, independent prosecutors were nothing more than unaccountable, costly political weapons, which Democrats used to smear Republican Administrations. (In fact, according to Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University’s law school, both parties have sought to use such counsels for political advantage. But, he added, they remain necessary to limit abuses: “What the special counsel does is provide a check.”)
The resulting case, Morrison v. Olson, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that independent counsels did not interfere “unduly” or “impermissibly” with the powers of the executive branch. The sole dissent came from Scalia, who cautioned that a politically biased prosecutor could carry out “debilitating criminal investigations” for minor crimes. “Nothing is so politically effective,” he wrote, “as the ability to charge that one’s opponent and his associates are not merely wrongheaded, naive, ineffective, but, in all probability, ‘crooks.’ ” (Ultimately, prosecutors declined to charge Olson.)
For Reagan and his aides, the Supreme Court ruling was not an abstract concern. The year before, news had broken of what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. In an extraordinary series of crimes, the C.I.A. director William Casey and several White House aides sold sophisticated weaponry to Iran and funnelled the profits to anti-Communist rebels in Central America, in defiance of a law that specifically barred support for the group. All the while, Casey and the aides brazenly lied to Congress about their actions. When the scheme was uncovered, Reagan’s poll numbers sank, but he denied knowledge of the operation and avoided impeachment.
In televised hearings, the National Security Council aide Oliver North argued that Presidents and their aides should be able to do whatever they deem necessary to protect the country from threats. Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming, argued that North and his allies had done nothing improper, because foreign policy and national security should be controlled solely by the executive branch. But Democrats and a majority of Republicans said that Congress must be able to act as a check on a wayward President. At the hearings, Daniel Inouye, a Democratic senator from Hawaii, who headed the inquiry, warned that a “cabal” of officials who believed they had a “monopoly on truth” could lead to “autocracy.” Barr was unmoved. He later told an interviewer, “I think people in the Iran-Contra matter have been treated very unfairly.”