William Barr began his tenure as Donald Trump’s attorney general with extremely evasive testimony during his confirmation hearing. He may be best remembered for giving a highly misleading summary of the Mueller report, and he spent much of 2020 trying to substantiate Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election being rigged against him.
But now, more than six months following his departure from government, Barr is trying to do some image damage control.
In interviews with journalist Jonathan Karl for a book excerpted in the Atlantic, Barr details how his final break with Trump finally came after he went public with claims undermining Trump’s last-ditch effort to overturn his election loss to Joe Biden.
“To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr told an Associated Press reporter on December 1.
Barr told Karl that comment prompted an angry Trump to summon him into a meeting in which the president unloaded on him, saying things like “how the fuck could you do this to me?” and “you must hate Trump.”
Barr indicates that not only was he not intimidated by Trump’s outburst, but he fired back, comparing the Rudy Giuliani-led effort to overturn the results to a circus.
“You know, you only have five weeks, Mr. President, after an election to make legal challenges,” Barr told Trump, according to Karl. “This would have taken a crackerjack team with a really coherent and disciplined strategy. Instead, you have a clown show. No self-respecting lawyer is going anywhere near it. It’s just a joke. That’s why you are where you are.”
Barr ended up leaving the Department of Justice days before the January 6 insurrection. The new account of the weeks leading up to his resignation has led some to describe him as a “patriot.” But that’s going way too far even when Barr’s account is read in the most charitable light.
Barr was eager to spread Trump’s election conspiracy theories right until the bitter end
While Karl’s portrayal of Barr isn’t flattering, the book excerpt doesn’t get into how Barr spent the run-up to the 2020 election serving more as an arm of Trump’s campaign than he did as an independent arbiter of the rule of law. Barr was happy to amplify Trump’s lies about mail voting and voting fraud up to the point where it was clear to all but the most fanatical Trump supporters that he had lost the election.
Consider, for instance, the disastrous interview Barr did with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on September 2, when he couldn’t produce any evidence of mail voting fraud and resorted to saying its general existence is a “matter of logic.” Or his DOJ’s decision a few weeks later to issue a factually incorrect press release announcing an investigation into alleged mail voting irregularities in Pennsylvania — an announcement that violated DOJ’s policies. Or Barr’s move three days after the election to authorize investigations into “substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities,” even though there was no evidence of such irregularities.
In his interviews with Karl, Barr portrayed his decision to authorize fraud investigations despite a lack of evidence as a strategy he used to make sure he would be able to tell Trump that his conspiracy theories were baseless when the time came.
“My attitude was: It was put-up or shut-up time,” Barr said to Karl. “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.”
That might sound reasonable enough on its face. But as Greg Sargent highlighted for the Washington Post, it’s not normal for the DOJ, which is ostensibly supposed to operate with a modicum of independence from the executive branch, to pursue investigations based on “bullshit” conspiracy theories favored by the president. But Barr spent years turning the DOJ into something akin to the president’s personal law firm.
Barr’s comments about authorizing election fraud investigations aren’t the only thing he tries to whitewash during his interviews with Karl. He also explains away his fawning resignation statement as a gambit to calm down political tensions. (Barr wrote of Trump: “Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance,” adding that the president “had been met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.”)
“To defuse the tension, Barr had written an effusive resignation letter, which he handed to the president when he got to the Oval Office,” Karl wrote.
But, as Jonathan Chait notes for New York magazine, “if Barr had decided Trump was dangerous and undemocratic” — and his comments to Karl suggest he had already reached that conclusion weeks earlier — then “why would he continue to claim publicly that the true danger was Trump’s opponents?”
Barr and Mitch McConnell come across as cynical political operators
It’s not even clear to what extent — if at all — Barr’s break with Trump was motivated by a desire to protect American democracy. Instead, Karl’s piece makes it seem as though Barr and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were primarily interested in helping Republicans win special elections in January for two US Senate seats.
Karl writes that McConnell had been urging Barr throughout November to speak out against Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theories, because those theories were complicating the argument Republicans wanted to make about how maintaining the Senate majority was important as a check on Biden’s power. But McConnell was reluctant to speak out himself for fear that if he did so, an embittered Trump would sabotage the Republican candidates.
From Karl’s story:
“Look, we need the president in Georgia,” McConnell told Barr, “and so we cannot be frontally attacking him right now. But you’re in a better position to inject some reality into this situation. You are really the only one who can do it.”
“I understand that,” Barr said. “And I’m going to do it at the appropriate time.”
On another call, McConnell again pleaded with Barr to come out and shoot down the talk of widespread fraud.
“Bill, I look around, and you are the only person who can do it,” McConnell told him.
So while it’s good that Barr ultimately stood up to Trump, it’s worth keeping in mind how abnormal it is for the US attorney general to be scheming with the Senate leader on ways to ensure their political party retains power.
Of course, by the end of the Trump administration, that sort of norm-shattering behavior had become par for the course, and Barr worked as hard as anyone to pervert the DOJ into an arm of the president’s reelection campaign. Only when it became clear that Trump lost did he think twice. Even then, he appears to have been motivated more by cynical political concerns than he was by doing right by American democracy.
Despite Barr’s devotion to him and the key work he did fending off the Mueller investigation, Trump predictably responded to the Atlantic story with a statement attacking Barr as a “RINO” and a “disappointment in every sense of the word.” As always, anything short of complete and unflinching loyalty isn’t enough for Trump.