Legal Eagle

by Steve Friess | October 2018

With the presidential transition following the 2016 election, Barbara McQuade, ’87, JD’91, knew it was only a matter of time before she’d be out of a job. The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, appointed by President Obama in 2010, was asked to resign in March 2017 in a purge that occurs every time the White House changes party hands.

McQuade figured the next phase of her career would primarily involve teaching at the U-M Law School and, after seven arduous years as the region’s top prosecutor, spending more time with her four adolescent children.

She did not plan on becoming a media star.

Yet several times a week, as viewers of MSNBC know, she sits in front of a picturesque image of Ann Arbor and helps make sense of confusing and dramatic legal news for the likes of Chris Matthews and Brian Williams.

“When they first asked me to appear, I said, ‘You know I don’t really have political opinions,’” McQuade said as she was having her hair and makeup done for an appearance in early September. ”They said, ‘If you can just help explain the legal information that’s going on so that the average viewer can understand it, that’s what we want.’” So that’s what she tries to do.

“What’s going on in a grand jury, what’s going on in a search, what’s going on in plea negotiations—those are things I’ve done before. I’m glad to try to explain legal terms into language that ordinary people can understand.”

McQuade’s experience as U.S. attorney makes her a double threat of sorts; she’s equally versed in public corruption issues, having prosecuted former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and national security, after convicting an Al Qaeda operative who plotted to bomb a plane en route to Detroit in 2009. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder assigned her co-chair of his Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee. The experience and insights from both cases help her inform the public when discussing developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

On MSNBC and in articles she’s penned for The Hill and The Daily Beast, McQuade offers highly technical legal analysis and scrupulously avoids offering sharp opinions beyond “calling out what I see as violations of norms.” She’s most forceful, in fact, in defending the integrity of law enforcement.

Her tenure with MSNBC started in May 2017, as Sally Yates, former acting attorney general, appeared before Congress to testify about fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The network’s “Hardball” summoned her to discuss the developments. The next day, when President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, “The Rachel Maddow Show” brought her back to chew over that bombshell.

“And then, after you do a few, they tend to ask you back,” she said. “I’ve been appearing fairly regularly ever since.”

By July 2017, MSNBC signed McQuade as a paid contributor. To date, she’s made more than 100 appearances, sometimes even popping up more than twice in a given day. It’s easy, she said, because she can beam in from a studio on U-M’s Central Campus or a different studio at Domino’s Farms, both a short drive from her home in Ann Arbor.

The network’s anchors regularly lavish praise on McQuade. A typical example was Nicolle Wallace on April 5, who led into a question with, “So you`re our straight shooter on all legal questions here.”

McQuade’s fame, of course, carries over into the halls of the Law School, where she is teaching “National Security and Civil Liberties” this fall. In the winter term, she will be teaching two classes, “Criminal Procedure” and “Reducing Firearm Violence within Urban Communities.” Students often comment that they see her on TV. “What’s going on in the news creates a lot of very good teaching opportunities,” she said.

Television does give her the opportunity to represent U-M positively. “The background we most frequently use is a photo I took myself,” she said, tapping through her iPhone to display a shot from the eighth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library that encompasses both the Law Quad and Michigan Stadium.

“I like to think this brings good attention to the University. A lot of alums around the country send me emails, texts, and tweets saying it’s great to see that ‘M’ in the background.”


Steve Friess is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a 2011-12 Knight-Wallace Fellow at U-M. His work appears regularly in The New York Times, The New Republic, Playboy, and many others.