By any fair measure, Bill Barr was the nation's most radical attorney general in the post-Watergate era. As we've discussed many times, the Republican lawyer used federal law enforcement to serve Donald Trump's interests, directly intervening in cases of political interest to the White House. Barr's efforts were as brazen as they were corrupt.
But for the president, they weren't quite corrupt enough. Donald Trump envisioned a system of government in which he was effectively his own attorney general, and the person with the title was merely an instrument of the president's will. Trump would decide what the law said. Trump would decide who was worthy of prosecution. Trump would decide which investigations had merit. It was the attorney general's job to say, "Yes, sir," and carry out the president's wishes.
And so, in the runup to Election Day 2020, Trump expected Barr to use federal law enforcement against his rivals, but the attorney general wouldn't go quite that far. After Election Day 2020, Trump also expected Barr to embrace the Big Lie, and the attorney general wouldn't do that, either.
In fact, the more dangerous the former president became, the more eager Barr became to rehabilitate his public image, even accusing Trump of "inexcusable" behavior on Jan. 6. "The president's conduct yesterday was a betrayal of his office," Barr said the day after the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol.
The rehabilitation campaign is far from over. The Atlantic published a new piece yesterday from ABC News' Jonathan Karl, who spoke directly to the former attorney general about Trump's election conspiracy theories. "It was all bulls**t," Barr said.
Trump responded last night with a hysterical written statement, lashing out at his former A.G. as a "spineless RINO."
In many political disputes, it's tempting to look for protagonists and antagonists, but in the Trump-Barr drama, there are no heroes. During his Justice Department tenure, Barr was a relentless partisan who corrupted federal law enforcement. Even after Election Day 2020, Barr permitted prosecutors to examine ridiculous fraud claims, not for any legitimate reasons, but apparently to appease Trump.
That Trump is convinced that Barr wasn't quite corrupt enough does not exonerate the former attorney general.
But there was something else in The Atlantic report that stood out for me.
Barr told Jon Karl that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pressed the then-attorney general to speak out against Trump's anti-election nonsense starting in mid-November. As the story goes, McConnell realized the conspiracy theories were ridiculous; he was concerned the nonsense would hurt the party in Georgia's Senate special elections; and he turned to Barr to help set the record straight.
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."
The then-attorney general told the Senate GOP leader he understood and would speak out at the "appropriate time." Two weeks later, Barr told the Associated Press there was simply no evidence to substantiate Trump's baseless ideas about the election results.
All of this is notable as a matter of understanding the details of what transpired, but I have a follow-up question: why was the Senate Republicans' leader discussing partisan election strategies with the then-attorney general?