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As hearing’s star witness, Barr says Trump was ‘detached from reality’

The former attorney general aimed a rhetorical dagger at President Donald Trump, a man he spent years defending

A video showing former attorney general William P. Barr is shown at the June 9 hearing of the House select committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol in D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Appearing larger than life on a giant screen above the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, former attorney general William P. Barr on Monday offered a blistering assessment of the man he’d spent years defending: In 2020, after losing the election, President Donald Trump appeared “detached from reality” and obsessed with fantastical notions of voter fraud, Barr said.

That blunt assessment amounted to a kind of rhetorical dagger aimed at his former boss, even if it was delivered from a previously taped, closed-door questioning session and included many criticisms Barr had already aired in tell-all books written by him and others.

Barr’s view of Trump is more complicated than his congressional video clips suggest. In his book and interviews this year, Barr has said he does not want Trump to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024 — but if he is, he will still vote for him. The former attorney general has also said Trump is responsible, but not criminally liable, for the Jan. 6 riot.

In recorded testimony played on June 13, former attorney general William P. Barr said he was unimpressed with the Dinesh D’Souza film “2000 Mules." (Video: The Washington Post)

Still, for a national television and online audience, Barr on Monday was in some sense the hearing’s star witness to Trump’s angry rejection of findings from his own Justice Department that claims of mass voter fraud were misunderstandings, nonsense or flat-out false.

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“I thought, boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has, you know, lost contact with, become detached from reality,” Barr said. The former attorney general said when he tried to tell the president “how crazy some of these allegations were, there was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were.”

Barr has said he told Trump the voter-fraud claims were “bullshit,” a claim he repeated in his closed-door session with the committee. That only served to infuriate the president, who — according to Barr — said he “must hate” Trump to say something like that.

Largely because of Trump’s refusal to accept Barr’s findings about the election, the relationship between the president and attorney general grew so strained that Barr resigned in December 2020, not long after telling a reporter that the Justice Department had not found evidence of sizable election fraud.

The committee’s next hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, will feature testimony from former Justice Department officials who remained after Barr’s departure. They became enmeshed in a tense standoff with Trump in the days just before Jan. 6, during which the president sought to remove Barr’s successor, Jeffrey Rosen, as acting attorney general, and replace him with another Justice Department lawyer who had embraced claims of massive voter fraud.

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This week’s hearings seem aimed at showing that Trump had to know his election fraud claims were bunk, but still tried to steamroll government agencies and elected officials into supporting those claims. Yet much of the testimony offered to date points to a kind of stubborn insistence by Trump that he was right and all the experienced investigators and professionals were wrong.

Former attorney general William P. Barr told the Jan. 6 select committee that President Donald Trump made election fraud claims before evidence appeared. (Video: The Washington Post)

Lawmakers played video clips of another former senior Justice Department official, Richard Donoghue, discussing his own tortured conversations with Trump on this topic.

Donoghue said there were so many wild allegations of fraud, “when you gave him a very direct answer on one of them, he wouldn’t fight us on it,” but would move to another allegation, such as a claim that a suitcase full of fraudulent ballots was rolled under a table at a vote-counting facility in Georgia. “We looked at the tape, we interviewed the witnesses. … And I said, ‘no sir, there is no suitcase. You can watch the video over and over. There is no suitcase.’ ”

Lawmakers on the committee argue these exchanges — and Trump’s repeated embrace of far-fetched theories proffered by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others — show that Trump knew the election wasn’t stolen from him.

But none of the witnesses on Monday described Trump accepting that conclusion. On the contrary, the witnesses said he refused to believe he had lost — a crucial distinction for any criminal investigation into Trump’s conduct.

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“From a legal standpoint, the greatest challenge is proving subjective intent when it comes to claims of voter fraud altering the outcome of the election. That means proving that the individual appreciated the wrongfulness of their conduct,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor that is now in private practice.

“Proving intent is not a question of reasonableness or common sense, it requires subjective proof that someone knew that their statements were not true at the time they were making them, or that they were willfully blind to the truth,” Mintz said. “The ultimate question for any government lawyer looking at this evidence is whether the president and others knew their claims of widespread voter fraud were false, or if they were simply choosing to ignore the advice of some, in favor of those who were telling them what they wanted to hear.”

Still unclear is what the Justice Department — which is conducting its own investigation of the origins of the Jan. 6 attack — makes of the committee’s case to date.

At an unrelated news conference Monday, Attorney General Merrick Garland again declined to discuss the legal or factual questions surrounding Jan. 6, noting that there are hundreds of ongoing cases and the department has a general policy of not discussing investigations. He added, however, that prosecutors are paying close attention to the committee’s hearings.

“I am watching, I will be watching all of the hearings,” Garland said. “I may not be able to watch all of it live, but I’m sure I will be watching all of it, and I can assure you the January 6 prosecutors are watching all of the hearings as well.”

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