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As The Nation Gears Up To Vote, William Barr Is A Public Face For GOP

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Attorney General William Barr did not speak at this week's Republican National Convention. But that doesn't mean he's sitting silently on the sidelines during the campaign. Instead, Barr has been a very public face and voice as the nation gears up to vote. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has this story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Traditionally, attorneys general try to steer clear of talking partisan politics, especially during a presidential campaign. The idea is to avoid even the perception of trying to tip the scales of the election. This summer, however, Attorney General William Barr has charted a different course. He's done at least seven sit-down interviews with national broadcasters since early June in which he has tackled politically charged issues head on. He's echoed the president's unfounded view of mail-in voting...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: It absolutely opens the floodgates to fraud.

LUCAS: ...And the media's coverage of recent racial justice protests.

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BARR: The American people are being told a lie by the media.

LUCAS: But, perhaps, most notable are the political attacks Barr has made against Democrats. In an interview on Fox News, he accused them of shredding the country's norms to try to drive Trump from office. He's accused them of being hellbent on total victory, tearing down the system and running people's lives. Barr also had this to say on Fox about racism in the middle of an election campaign in which that very topic has become a hot button issue.

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BARR: The racism in this country - look no further than our public education system. That's a racist system maintained by the Democratic Party and the teachers' union.

LUCAS: Legal experts and Justice Department veterans say it is not the attorney general's job to engage in partisan politics. And they say that, with these sorts of statements, Barr is doing exactly that.

FRED WERTHEIMER: He has been operating as a political operative and a campaign aide to the president rather than as attorney general of the United States.

LUCAS: That's Fred Wertheimer, the founder of the left-leaning watchdog group Democracy 21. He says Barr has publicly gone after Democrats, pushed his own conservative ideological views and echoed Trump's partisan talking points on topics front and center in the presidential race.

WERTHEIMER: Barr is free to have any views he wants. But he's not free to exercise those views as attorney general of the United States.

LUCAS: The reason for that, Wertheimer says, is because the attorney general's job and the Justice Department's mission is to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice.

WERTHEIMER: How are those Americans who he attacks on ideological grounds supposed to conclude that he is going to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for them? You can't possibly conclude that.

LUCAS: Democrats and some DOJ veterans also have mounting concerns about Barr's handling of the department's investigation into the Russia probe. Barr has made repeated suggestions that investigators have dug up surprising and troubling information that could benefit the president. Barr's critics accuse him of violating department policy by discussing an ongoing criminal investigation.

DONALD AYER: Generally, we do not comment on the existence of investigations. And we never comment on the substance of what we are finding.

LUCAS: That's Donald Ayer. He served as deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration.

AYER: So he's been violating that rule itself categorically.

LUCAS: It is also department policy to avoid taking any action that could possibly influence an election. On Capitol Hill last month, Barr refused to commit to not releasing a report from the investigation of the Russia probe before the November vote. But he has said he's committed to a free and fair election and has promised that the department won't take any action to interfere in that.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "TOTEM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.