The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barr calls prospect of Trump running for president again ‘dismaying,’ says GOP should ‘look forward’ to others

Then-President Donald Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr in the East Room at the White House in 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Former attorney general William P. Barr says in a new book that the prospect of Donald Trump running for president again is “dismaying” and urges the Republican Party to “look forward” to other candidates, concluding after a searing, behind-the-scenes account of his time in the president’s Cabinet that Trump is not the right man to lead the country.

In the book, “One Damn Thing After Another,” Barr takes shot after shot at Trump, especially over his leadership during the coronavirus pandemic and his false claims that the election was stolen from him. Barr, who had a famous falling-out with Trump late in his presidency, writes that Trump’s “constant bellicosity diminishes him and the office,” and that in the final months of the administration, he came to realize that “Trump cared only about one thing: himself. Country and principle took second place.”

“We need leaders not only capable of fighting and ‘punching,’ but also persuading and attracting — leaders who can frame, and advocate for, an uplifting vision of what it means to share in American citizenship,” Barr writes. “Donald Trump has shown he has neither the temperament nor persuasive powers to provide the kind of positive leadership that is needed.”

Barr styles the book, to be published March 8, as a memoir of his life. He recounts events as far back as his childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He launches blistering attacks on liberals and the news media — whom he views even more dimly than the former president — while outlining his conservative views on crime, religion, gender and sexuality. He also defends his handling of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, and details how the Justice Department navigated allegations that Trump had committed a crime in pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden.

Most notably, he unloads on Trump, casting him as an “incorrigible” narcissist who, “through his self-indulgence and lack of self-control,” blew the 2020 election and then did “a disservice to the nation” in falsely claiming his defeat was due to fraud.

“The election was not ‘stolen,’” Barr writes. “Trump lost it.”

Barr says he hasn’t seen fraud that could affect the election outcome

As attorney general, Barr faced withering criticism that he politicized the Justice Department to serve Trump’s interests, such as by intervening in criminal cases to benefit the president’s allies and launching investigations that targeted the president’s foes. Though he casts himself in his book as resisting pressure to take inappropriate steps, critics are likely to accuse him of offering a self-serving retelling of events to sell books and rehabilitate his own public image.

Then-president Donald Trump tweeted on Dec. 14, 2020, that William P. Barr would resign as attorney general. Tom Hamburger explained their relationship. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Barr writes that he and White House lawyers had regular Monday lunches, where they would “inventory the legally problematic ideas floating around the administration.” A “fair share” of those — such as using an executive order to end citizenship for children born in the United States to parents who were here illegally — came from Trump himself, Barr writes.

He writes that the lawyers “operated like a tag team, so that neither of us would provoke too much of the President’s ire at one time.”

“We referred to this as choosing who would ‘eat the grenade,’” Barr writes.

Barr says his relationship with Trump faced one of its first major tests in the summer of 2019, when he declined to prosecute James B. Comey because there were a “few words” of classified information in memos the former FBI director gave to his private lawyers. He writes that Trump raged at him after the decision was revealed: “I’m shocked, Bill. I’m disgusted. I’m not happy about this, Bill.” Even as time wore on, Barr writes, Trump “never let me forget how unhappy he was.”

Barr said that even though he made the right call, it did not matter to the president.

“People are worthwhile to Trump only as means to his ends — as utensils,” Barr writes. “When they don’t help him get what he wants, they are useless. In my case, Trump’s disenchantment started — as it was bound to — when he saw I was not willing to bend the law to do his bidding.”

Barr describes how he grew increasingly frustrated by the president’s public and private comments about Justice Department business, and the president’s wanting him “to deliver scalps in time for the election.”

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In mid-October 2020, he writes, Trump called him and broached the subject of Hunter Biden, who was then under Justice Department investigation and whose name was in the news because of the discovery of a laptop belonging to him.

“Dammit, Mr. President, I am not going to talk to you about Hunter Biden. Period!” Barr says he responded.

Barr describes Trump’s response to the covid-19 pandemic as a devastating blow to his presidency. In particular, he criticizes Trump’s “stubborn insistence on giving daily rambling ad hoc commentary on the pandemic, starting with his interminable and cringe-inducing press conferences in March and April.” He describes how he and other advisers sought to get the president to curtail the briefings, to no avail.

“Covid was a staggering blow to the President’s political fortunes because, instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities, it proved to be a stage on which he displayed some of the more alienating aspects of his behavior,” Barr writes. “In short, the pandemic threw into bold relief Trump’s deficiencies as leader — showcasing his failings, not his strengths.”

Barr writes that as the summer neared its end, his and Trump’s relationship was “fraying.” Trump was particularly upset about the pace of special counsel John Durham’s investigation, which Barr had ordered up to review the FBI’s 2016 investigation of whether Trump’s campaign had coordinated with Russia.

Barr writes that when he explained to Trump that Durham had, until the end of 2019, been looking at questions about the CIA’s role that did “not pan out,” Trump snapped at him, “You buy that bullshit, Bill?”

“I lost it and answered in a sarcastic tone. ‘Well, if you know what happened, Mr. President, I am all ears,’” Barr writes. “‘Maybe we are wasting time doing an investigation. Maybe all the armchair quarterbacks telling you they have all the evidence can come in and enlighten us.’”

The breaking point for Barr and Trump’s relationship, though, seems to have come after the election, when Barr refused to back Trump’s claims of widespread fraud.

In more detail than he has previously shared, Barr describes how he marshaled the Justice Department and the FBI to explore various fraud claims. And in each instance, he writes, they could find no evidence to support those claims — though that did not deter the president.

“I got calls from senators and members of the House asking me what I thought about all the claims of fraud,” Barr writes. “On this trajectory, the peaceful transition of power was not an obviously attainable goal.”

Barr takes particular aim at those who had the president’s ear — including former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who Barr says will be remembered as “the man who helped President Trump get impeached not once but twice.” (Giuliani was involved in the pressure campaign in Ukraine, which was at the heart of Trump’s first impeachment, and the effort to overturn the election, which fueled the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and was at the heart of the second.)

He writes that Trump’s legal team “had a difficult case to make, and they made it as badly and unprofessionally as I could have imagined,” taking particular note of a news conference Giuliani held at a Philadelphia landscaping company to promote his claims.

“It was all a grotesque embarrassment,” Barr writes.

Barr writes that Trump “surrounded himself with sycophants, including many whack jobs from outside the government, who fed him a steady diet of comforting but unsupported conspiracy theories.” He seems to blame Trump for the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, in which supporters of the president stormed the building as lawmakers were finalizing the vote count.

“The absurd lengths to which he took his ‘stolen election’ claim led to the rioting on Capitol Hill,” Barr writes, though he notes later that he was not accusing the president of incitement.

“I did not think, from what I heard, that Trump ‘incited’ violence in the legal sense,” Barr writes. “Incitement has a legal definition, and Trump’s statements would not fit that definition in any American court.”

Barr writes that he repeatedly informed Trump, through his staff, that the Justice Department was not finding evidence to support his claims of fraud. The issue came to a head in December 2020, when Barr said as much publicly to the Associated Press.

Barr wrote that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows conveyed to him that the president was upset over his comments but that initially Meadows seemed more concerned with another issue. That same day, Barr had revealed publicly that he had appointed Durham as a special counsel, giving him extra protections in the next administration. Barr writes that he was initially confused by Meadows’s concern.

“Then it hit me,” Barr writes. “The President didn’t want to wait to have Durham’s findings out after January 20. I thought his aim might be to push aside Durham and then have his own legal team — a farcical collection akin to his election team, I guessed — rifle through Durham’s materials and publish right away whatever documents helped Trump. It wasn’t clear to me whether he wanted to get this stuff out to support his efforts to stay in office, or whether he simply did not trust that it would get out after he left office.”

Barr writes that he confronted Meadows about why the president would “want to blow up the Durham investigation,” and Meadows responded, “Sorry, Bill. I don’t know what the President will do, but he might decide not to wait any longer.”

“Well,” Barr responded, according to his account, “under the department’s regulations, he can only be removed by me. And I won’t do it.”

Barr writes that he soon met with Trump himself at the White House to talk about his comments on voter fraud and that the president was upset.

“You must hate Trump. You would only do this if you hate Trump,” Trump said, by Barr’s account. As Barr tried to explain the department’s findings, Trump brought up a litany of other grievances, and Barr said he was willing to resign.

“Accepted!” Trump yelled, slamming the table with his palm.

Barr did not resign then, though he would do so later that month.

Barr’s criticism of Trump, too, is not absolute. Even in concluding that the Republican Party should move on to new candidates, Barr writes that he “appreciated the many successes the President delivered for the American people,” and that he “admired the fact that the President forged forward with this positive agenda in the face of bitter, implacable attacks.”

But his overall account is hardly flattering to Trump.

Barr writes that Trump occasionally surprised him. By Barr’s account, Trump at one point told him he felt the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server “should be dropped” and that “Even if she were guilty … for the election winner to seek prosecution of the loser would make the country look like a ‘banana republic.’” On the campaign trail, Trump had repeatedly called for Clinton to be arrested over the matter, and told her at a debate that “you’d be in jail” if he controlled the law in the country.

Barr also writes that, when he informed the president of his decision not to charge a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner — whose videotaped takedown and cries of “I can’t breathe” coined a rallying cry for those concerned about law enforcement’s treatment of minorities — Trump was surprised and skeptical.

“If all you knew about Donald Trump was the caricature of him in the news media, you might assume he would automatically side with the police and callously disregard the possibility of excessive force,” Barr writes. “That wasn’t his reaction.”

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