Republicans generally try to avoid becoming targets of Donald Trump's ire, but Bill Barr is in an unusual position. When the former president issued a hysterical written statement on Sunday night, lashing out at Barr as a "spineless RINO" and a "disappointment in every sense of the word," it's likely the former attorney general was quite pleased with the condemnation.
Five months after Trump exited the White House, Barr seems especially eager to distance himself from his former boss. Joan Walsh yesterday referred to the larger effort as "William Barr's rehabilitation tour": an apparent public-relations campaign in which the former attorney general tries to restore some semblance of credibility by publicly distancing himself from the failed former president.
There were some preliminary hints along these lines earlier this year, with Barr accusing Trump of "inexcusable" behavior on Jan. 6. "The president's conduct yesterday was a betrayal of his office," the Republican lawyer said the day after the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol.
The "rehabilitation tour" reached a new level when Barr sat down with ABC News' Jonathan Karl, who wrote this much-discussed piece for The Atlantic, which was published online over the weekend.
Barr and those close to him have a reason to tell his version of this story. He has been widely seen as a Trump lackey who politicized the Justice Department. But when the big moment came after the election, he defied the president who expected him to do his bidding.
It was in this same piece that the former attorney general, referring to Trump's election conspiracy theories, said, "It was all bulls**t."
The motivation is unsubtle: Barr wants to wash off the stain he acquired during his tenure on Team Trump. The Republican lawyer doesn't need to worry about currying favor with the former president in advance of future electoral campaigns, though Barr does seem desperate to restore his reputation.
Whether the former attorney general realizes it or not, it's far too late. His record chases after him like cans tied to his bumper.
Lengthy books will no doubt be written about Barr's Justice Department tenure, and the degree to which he was a relentless partisan who corrupted federal law enforcement. I won't try to offer a comprehensive rundown on his misdeeds here.
But with his "bulls**t" rhetoric in mind, we can focus specifically on Barr's election-related rhetoric, which exposes a lawyer who was only too pleased to go along with dangerous nonsense until it no longer suited his purposes.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was in June 2020 when Barr peddled nonsensical theories to the New York Times about "foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots." None of this was true.
The same month, Barr said in an interview with NPR, “There’s so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed. I think it would be very bad. But one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting” of ballots. He had no evidence, but said it was "obvious" that his ridiculous claims could be true. (They were false.)
Similarly, in a CNN interview in September 2020, the then-attorney general went further, arguing, "Elections that have been held with mail have found substantial fraud and coercion." (That wasn't true.) Barr added that "logic" told him that foreign actors could interfere with vote-by-mail systems through fraudulent ballots. (That was absurd, too.)
He went on to say at the time that the Justice Department had "indicted someone in Texas -- 1,700 ballots collected from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to. OK?" (The Justice Department soon after conceded that Barr's claim wasn't true.)
A week later, as Election Day approached, Barr sat down with the Chicago Tribune's John Kass and issued baseless warnings intended to undermine public confidence in the electoral system. "[Democrats] are creating an incendiary situation where there's going to be loss of confidence in the vote, it'll be a close vote," he argued. "People will say, 'The President won Nevada -- oh, wait a minute! We just discovered a hundred thousand ballots, every vote must be counted!'"
After the election, Barr's actions were hardly more defensible. According to the Justice Department's guidelines, possible investigations into election irregularities are supposed to wait until after the voting tabulations are complete and the results have been certified. Last November, however, Barr decided to ignore his own department's policies and issue a provocative memo.
Specifically, the then-attorney general issued a directive authorizing prosecutors "to pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities prior to the certification of elections." Soon after, Richard Pilger, who led the Justice Department's Election Crimes Branch, felt the need to resign in the wake of Barr's memo.
Barr eventually conceded that there was no meaningful evidence of fraud, but he waited until Dec. 1 to tell the truth -- at which point millions of Americans had already been convinced to believe Trump's election-related lies.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Barr permitted prosecutors to examine ridiculous fraud claims, not for any legitimate reasons, but apparently to appease Trump. The aforementioned report in The Atlantic added, "[I]n addition to giving prosecutors approval to open investigations into clear and credible allegations of substantial fraud, Barr began his own, unofficial inquiry into the major claims that the president and his allies were making."
In other words, the then-attorney general played along with Trump's campaign against democracy.
Barr now wants to be seen as having been separate from the White House's anti-election schemes. It's far too late for that.