Some Republicans rejected Donald Trump from the outset of his candidacy, while others stayed loyal. Between these two poles lie an array of officials who sought to influence a president whom they privately viewed with contempt, until either their conscience or their effectiveness had given out. In this category sits William Barr, one of the last officials to hop off the Trump train before it careened off the tracks.
After Joe Biden had defeated his boss, Barr began busily rewriting the history of his service to Trump, casting himself as a quiet bulwark of sanity and lawfulness. He resigned his post in December, and has given his story to reporter Jonathan Karl, who paints a largely (though not entirely) sympathetic portrait. Barr “has been widely seen as a Trump lackey who politicized the Justice Department,” writes Karl. “But when the big moment came after the election, he defied the president who expected him to do his bidding.”
The world is not divided cleanly into good and evil, and gradations of misconduct matter. While Trump had a One America News worldview, Barr had a Fox News worldview and was able to recognize that his boss actually lost the election, and publicly said he had found no evidence of wide-scale fraud. Barr does deserve some credit for his refusal to take the final leap with Trump into election-fraud conspiracy theorizing. Had the attorney general been, say, Rudy Giuliani, the country would indeed be in worse shape.
Karl’s story does not mention that Barr spent the months leading up the vote amplifying Trump’s clearly false claims that mail-in voting lent itself easily to nonvoters, including foreign countries, to cast ballots en masse. When Trump urged supporters to exploit supposedly lax requirements by voting twice, Barr refused even to offer an opinion on whether it is legal to do so.
An important motivation for Barr’s decision to contradict Trump’s claims of fraud after the election is that Barr’s position in the administration left him uniquely exposed. Other Trump loyalists, like Mike Pence (who has never conceded that Biden won the election fair and square), could keep their heads down and evade the point. Barr commanded a legal apparatus that was charged with prosecuting the crimes Trump insisted had taken place. If the fraud was possibly true, Barr had to find it.
But the fraud didn’t happen, which meant Barr’s only choices were to acknowledge reality, or follow Giuliani into the path of legal humiliation. Barr’s own account makes it clear that he recognized the problem. Trump’s simply did not have a well-organized legal strategy Barr could throw himself behind, and Barr knew it:
“You know, you only have five weeks, Mr. President, after an election to make legal challenges,” Barr said. “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.”
Indeed, if you strip away the relatively favorable gloss Karl and Barr provide for the story, Barr’s own account can be seen as deeply incriminating.
Barr reveals that he was in close contact with Mitch McConnell throughout the postelection period. McConnell’s primary concern was not the sanctity of American democracy, but preserving his Republican majority. The upcoming Georgia Senate runoff elections threatened to hand Democrats control of the chamber. McConnell’s best argument — the argument that out parties have always used following a presidential election defeat — was that they needed a majority to “check” the power of the incoming president. So long as Trump continued to insist he had a path to victory, Republicans couldn’t even make their most effective appeal to the voters.
Barr presents his cooperation with McConnell sympathetically. And in a sense, it all “worked out” in the end. But the same facts lend themselves to a far more cynical interpretation. Here is how Barr tells it, through Karl:
To McConnell, the road to maintaining control of the Senate was simple: Republicans needed to make the argument that with Biden soon to be in the White House, it was crucial that they have a majority in the Senate to check his power. But McConnell also believed that if he openly declared Biden the winner, Trump would be enraged and likely act to sabotage the Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia. Barr related his conversations with McConnell to me. McConnell confirms the account.
“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.”
McConnell and Barr shared a clear understanding that, past a certain point, Trump’s election challenge had ceased to be a vehicle to protect Republican power and had become a net liability. Recognizing this, Barr shifted his loyalty from Trump to McConnell.
There is no recognition anywhere in this story that Barr did anything wrong by coordinating political strategy with the Republican Senate leader. But it is highly unusual for an attorney general to act on this basis. (Imagine Merrick Garland was found to be making decisions with Charles Schumer on the basis of protecting Democratic Senate control!)
Trump has responded to Barr’s story by calling him a “RINO.” But Barr seems to have been more loyal to the GOP than Trump, who continued to pursue his personal interests after they diverged with those of the party.
When he resigned before Christmas, Barr was still hedging his bets. Karl quotes the most ridiculously obsequious portion of Barr’s resignation letter, which asserted Trump “had been met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.” (This was consistent with the line Barr had taken throughout the Trump era: that Trump was primarily a victim of the media, Democrats, and Robert Mueller, and if any norms had been violated, they were by Trump’s enemies.)
If Barr had decided Trump was dangerous and undemocratic, why would he continue to claim publicly that the true danger was Trump’s opponents? Karl puts Barr’s explanation in a subordinate clause: “To defuse the tension, Barr had written an effusive resignation letter, which he handed to the president when he got to the Oval Office.”
To defuse the tension? These were not awkward tweens at a middle-school dance. This is a wealthy man of retirement age, preparing a written statement that he knew would enter into the historical record. Barr’s notion that he had to flatter Trump as a matter of social courtesy, when he was terminating his working relationship with him, is ridiculous on its face.
No, the real motive for Barr’s letter was almost certainly not to avoid awkward banter, but to cleanse his own record. Barr had bent and broken numerous rules and norms on Trump’s behalf. He shared Trump’s reactionary social worldview and pushed his authority as far as it would go. Even at the very end, he defended Trump’s innocence because it justified all his own misdeeds.