WASHINGTON — When the top federal prosecutor in Washington recently accused the local police of arresting protesters without probable cause, Attorney General William P. Barr stepped in.
Mr. Barr, who has frequently voiced his support for police officers, brought in the U.S. attorney, Michael Sherwin, to meet with the chief of the Washington police and other top law enforcement officials, escalating the local dispute to the top of the Justice Department.
The meeting grew heated, but ultimately, Mr. Sherwin backed down, according to three people familiar with the encounter. Mr. Barr told Mr. Sherwin to write a letter that said he had not meant to imply that the police had acted unlawfully. In a nod to Mr. Sherwin’s original objection, the Washington police are working with prosecutors to identify video and other evidence to back up the arrests.
The episode was an example of Mr. Barr’s approach to running the Justice Department under President Trump: an agenda that is squarely in line not only with the White House but also with the Trump campaign’s law-and-order platform and assertions that Democrats have made the United States less safe. Critics argued that the department’s norm of independence from politics, widely seen as an anticorruption measure that grew out of the post-Watergate era, was at risk.
Mr. Barr has threatened legal action against Democratic leaders who sparred with the president over stay-at-home orders during the pandemic and echoed Mr. Trump’s accusation that they were not tough enough on protesters during nationwide unrest over race and policing. He led federal agents who patrolled the streets of Washington against the wishes of the mayor. And this week, the Justice Department seemed to play into the president’s efforts to undermine voting by mail, making an unusual disclosure about an investigation into nine discarded military mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania.
In public comments, Mr. Barr has expounded on topics outside of what recent attorneys general publicly discussed during an election, particularly his sharp critiques of Democrats and his grim pronouncements that they could destroy democracy. In a recent interview with a Chicago journalist, after acknowledging that he is not supposed to wade into politics but narrowly defining that as campaign appearances, Mr. Barr declared that the country would “go down a socialist path” if it elects former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Under Mr. Barr, the Justice Department is as close as it has been to the White House in a half-century, historians said. Not since John N. Mitchell steered the Nixon re-election effort from the fifth floor of the Justice Department has an attorney general wielded the power of the office to so bluntly serve a presidential campaign, they said.
“The norm has been that attorneys general try to keep the reputation of the department bright and shiny as a nonpartisan legitimate arm of the government that needs to be trusted by everyone,” said Andrew Rudalevige, a history professor at Bowdoin College who studies the power of the presidency.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Mr. Barr’s defenders said he was simply applying his own judgment and any benefit to Mr. Trump’s campaign was incidental.
“Barr does what, in his best judgment, is the right thing,” said George J. Terwilliger III, who served as deputy attorney general under Mr. Barr during the first Bush administration. “If the president is a political beneficiary of that, he is a collateral beneficiary, not an intended one.”
In recent months, as two forces — the spread of the coronavirus and protests over police killings of Black people — dominated headlines, Mr. Trump sought to blame Democrats for fomenting civil unrest and contributing to it through their handling of the pandemic.
The Justice Department, particularly the civil rights division, took aim at Democratic elected officials as well.
The division threatened action against states with Democratic governors including Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and New Jersey for nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus. It did not similarly request information from Republican-led states like Idaho, Indiana, Iowa and New Hampshire, where nursing home deaths linked to the pandemic accounted for large proportions of deaths. (On Friday, the Massachusetts attorney general announced indictments of two former leaders of a veterans’ home that was the site of an outbreak that the Justice Department has also investigated.)
And when the president pressured Democratic governors to lift stay-at-home orders imposed to slow the spread of the virus, the division accused states led by Democrats, including Michigan, Hawaii, New Mexico, Maine, Illinois, Colorado and Washington, of harming the economy and unconstitutionally limiting church attendance.
In a speech this month, Mr. Barr called the stay-at-home orders the biggest constraint on civil liberties since slavery, setting off a firestorm of criticism.
Mr. Barr’s language has also matched the president’s on blaming far-left extremists for the violence at protests. The attorney general told CNN that Antifa, a loose collection of antifascist activists, is the “ramrod for the violence” in cities where crime has broken out during the protests.
But the department has criminally charged multiple people who admitted affiliations with far-right and white supremacist groups. In a news release on Thursday promoting more than 300 arrests in recent months stemming from the demonstrations, the department made no mention of their allegiances.
As antiracism protests swelled nationwide this year, the civil rights division told the city attorney’s office in Seattle, where some residents had established a police-free zone for protesting, that it was exploring potential enforcement action against the city for allowing it, said Stephanie Formas, the chief of staff for Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat.
The division requested 911 call data and a meeting with the Seattle Police Department to examine the city’s handling of the protest zone, but the meeting never happened, Ms. Formas said.
The notification came two days after Mr. Barr told Fox Business Network in June he might “have to do something” to challenge the autonomous area. A department spokeswoman said that the career lawyers in the division explored legal actions against Seattle officials on their own without prompting from Mr. Barr or Eric Dreiband, the head of the civil rights division.
As protests wore on, Mr. Trump accused Democratic leaders of allowing violence to spiral out of control, labeling New York, Seattle and Portland as “anarchistic cities” and announcing with fanfare that he had asked Mr. Barr to determine whether they should lose their federal funding. This week, the Justice Department announced that Mr. Barr concluded that they should.
The matter helped fuel the president’s attacks on Democrats but changed little; Congress doles out federal funding, not the executive branch.
Current Justice Department employees rarely publicly criticize it or the attorney general, but this week a federal prosecutor in Massachusetts criticized what he deemed the “unprecedented politicization of the office of the attorney general” and accused Mr. Barr of bringing shame on the department.
“The attorney general acts as though his job is to serve only the political interests of Donald J. Trump,” James D. Herbert, the prosecutor, said in a letter to The Boston Globe. “This is a dangerous abuse of power.”
Mr. Barr is not the only cabinet member to embrace Mr. Trump’s campaign agenda in stark terms — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given speeches in swing states and participated in the Republican National Convention, casting aside a longstanding tradition that the country’s top diplomat should steer clear of campaigning for the president.
But the merging of their messaging with the president’s campaign agenda stands out. “Trump’s use of cabinet members as campaign surrogates to this extent is new,” Mr. Rudalevige said.
Mr. Barr himself has long held a dim view of the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence. The White House under Republican presidents had become afraid to treat the Justice Department as fully under its purview, he said in a 2001 interview, allowing law enforcement officials to operate with an independence that eroded the power of the presidency. Mr. Barr has long espoused an unfettered view of executive authority.
Republican administrations “took the view that the attorney general/Justice Department was special and different, and you didn’t mess around with it, didn’t intervene, you didn’t interfere,” he said of his first stint as attorney general during the George Bush administration.
While all presidents promote the accomplishments of their administrations, Mr. Barr’s view defied the norm of the past several decades where presidents and attorneys general have typically sought a separation between the White House and the Justice Department to preserve the appearance that justice is meted out fairly, regardless of political affiliation.
“What used to be, by design, independent legal decisions by the department are now carefully staged to maximize their political impact,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas. “It’s one thing to take advantage of some of the Justice Department’s work for political reasons, but to turn the department basically into a satellite office of the Trump campaign is incredibly damaging to any institutional independence that was left.”
Mr. Barr’s approach, however, could represent a new era of closeness between the White House and the Justice Department. Mr. Biden, who has frequently criticized the Trump Justice Department, said this week that if he wins the election, he would consider bringing the department’s civil rights division into the White House to give it more authority.
Mike Baker contributed reporting from Seattle.