Last week, on a rainy and bitterly cold night in Washington, D.C., a senior Trump administration official at the Justice Department, Stephen Boyd, trudged to a Capitol Hill bar to meet with a powerful Democrat’s top investigator.
The meeting, described to ABC News by a Justice Department official, came after a dramatic showdown days earlier between the Justice Department and House Democrats – a dispute allegedly supercharged by a leak from inside the attorney general's office.
Less than 24 hours before then-acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was set to testify to the House Judiciary Committee, Democrats prepared a subpoena that could be delivered on live TV if he didn't offer details about private conversations with the president.
In a rapid exchange of letters, Boyd accused Democrats of trying to create "a spectacle" and insisted Whitaker wouldn't show up unless they ruled out, in writing, a subpoena the next day. But the committee's chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., only offered a vague response.
They were at an impasse – until Boyd picked up the phone and made a promise to Nadler's aide: If Nadler penned a letter vowing no imminent subpoena, then the letter would not be made public.
In essence, Boyd's promise meant Nadler could avoid even undeserved criticism that he caved to Whitaker's demands, and the much-anticipated hearing could go on as planned, according to the Justice Department official, who does not work in Boyd’s office but was told of the internal discussion.
Based on Boyd's assurance, Nadler privately sent a new letter to Whitaker, clearly stating, "[T]here is no need to issue a subpoena tomorrow."
The letter, however, was soon posted online by Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, the committee’s top Republican. Collins later mocked the committee chairman's "full-blown cave.”
Nadler's office was blindsided.
And after Whitaker dodged several questions at the hearing the next day, Boyd asked the Democratic investigator to meet face-to-face, hoping to salvage their working relationship. At the Capitol Hill bar, Boyd relayed a surprising discovery: One of Whitaker's own senior aides forwarded Nadler's private letter to Collins' office, behind Boyd’s back.
That's how the letter became public, the Justice Department official told ABC News.
In some ways, Boyd's meeting at the bar reflects a time when Republicans and Democrats regularly mingled – and found compromise – away from the office. But the circumstances behind the meeting also underscore how distant those days have become.
Nearly two years ago, as Boyd was preparing to take over the Office of Legislative Affairs, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, warned him how treacherous his job would be.
"Mr. Boyd, you're about to run into a buzz saw. You do know this, don't you?" Graham asked during Boyd's Senate confirmation hearing in May 2017.
"That's what I'm told," Boyd responded.
Since being confirmed, Boyd has been at the center of some of the Trump era's most contentious political battles, under pressure not only from Democrats but also fellow Republicans and – as recently illustrated – some of his own Justice Department colleagues.
"Every day is a four-alarm fire," according to Ron Weich, who held Boyd's post at the Justice Department under the Obama administration.
Boyd is on "the front line of the struggle" between two branches of government, and he "needs to protect the [Justice] Department from legislative interference, but also needs to smooth the way for legitimate congressional oversight," Weich said.
Graham – the one who warned Boyd about running into a buzz saw – is now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and one of his self-professed priorities is to "hold accountable" anyone who exhibited "blatant political bias" during the FBI's investigation of possible ties between Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russian operatives.
That federal probe has dogged Boyd for the past two years, with Republican House members threatening to hold Boyd's bosses in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over classified documents or secret information about human sources used during the FBI's investigation.
In letters to those lawmakers, Boyd insisted they were seeking information so sensitive that it was stored only at the FBI, not even in secure rooms at the Justice Department designed to protect classified information.
Conservatives jumped on Boyd – a solid conservative himself – claiming Boyd's response wreaked of "arrogance," as then-congressman Dave Brat, R-Va., put it.
"Stephen Boyd is ... as much responsible for the slow-walking as anybody else," bemoaned Fox News Channel's senior judicial analyst, Andrew Napolitano.
Meanwhile, Boyd has also frustrated some Democrats for what they see as his lack of responsiveness.
But people on both sides of the aisle still describe Boyd as a positive, smart force inside the Justice Department who acts in good faith. One Democratic staffer even called him "very nice," and Weich praised what he sees as Boyd's "calm, sensible approach."
That approach could be tested now that Democrats control the House and wield subpoena power again.
"It's a whole new level of tension when the opposing party takes over," and Boyd should prepare for "one hostile hearing after another," Weich insisted.
Nadler and his fellow Democrats are already pressing the Justice Department on an array of issues. Among the questions they have: Are investigative decisions being improperly influenced by the White House? Why has the Justice Department curtailed certain protections against discrimination? What is the Justice Department doing to stop gun violence across the country or fix the nation's broken immigration system?
Boyd, now 40, has been navigating –- and at times taking part in -- thorny issues for nearly 15 years.
Years before he joined the Justice Department under attorney general Jeff Sessions, Boyd worked as a spokesman for then-senator Sessions. And during that time, at the start of Barack Obama's presidency, Boyd helped promote Sessions' opposition to immigration reform efforts and his rejection of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor as nominees to the Supreme Court.
Boyd also helped Sessions push for terrorism suspects to be prosecuted at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the alleged masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are still waiting for their trial to begin.
Like Sessions, Boyd is an Alabama native. Boyd attended the University of Alabama and then graduated from law school there. After his time with Sessions in the Senate, he spent several years as chief of staff to Rep. Martha Roby, another conservative Republican from Alabama.
That type of Capitol Hill experience is key to Boyd's job now.
"Federal prosecutors and members of Congress speak two different languages, and [he] needs to speak both," said Weich, who’s now dean of the University of Baltimore’s School of Law.
Through a spokeswoman, Boyd declined to comment for this story.