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Undercutting Trump, Barr says there’s no basis for seizing voting machines, using special counsels for election fraud, Hunter Biden

On Dec. 21, Attorney General William P. Barr undercut some of President Trump’s suggestions for overturning the results of the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post)

Outgoing Attorney General William P. Barr said Monday that he saw no basis for the federal government seizing voting machines and that he did not intend to appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations of voter fraud — again breaking with President Trump as the commander in chief entertains increasingly desperate measures to overturn the election.

At a news conference to announce charges in a decades-old terrorism case, Barr — who has just two days left in office — was peppered with questions about whether he would consider steps proposed by allies of the president to advance Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud.

Barr said that while he was “sure there was fraud in this election,” he had not seen evidence that it was so “systemic or broad-based” that it would change the result. He asserted he saw “no basis now for seizing machines by the federal government,” and he would not name a special counsel to explore the allegations of Trump and his allies.

“If I thought a special counsel at this stage was the right tool and was appropriate, I would name one, but I haven’t, and I’m not going to,” Barr said.

Similarly, Barr said he would not name a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden, President-elect Joe Biden’s son, who revealed earlier this month he was under investigation for possible tax crimes. Barr said the investigation was “being handled responsibly and professionally” by regular Justice Department prosecutors, and he hoped that would continue in the next administration.

“To this point, I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel, and I have no plan to do so before I leave,” Barr said.

The comments are likely to further erode what is already a significantly damaged relationship between Barr and Trump, though they also could help insulate Barr’s successor, Deputy Attorney General Jeff A. Rosen, from any White House pressure. Reacting to a news story about the comments, Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis, who has been involved in the effort to challenge election results, wrote on Twitter, “Maybe you should sit down now, Bill. You certainly did enough sitting down on the job.”

Earlier this month, Barr broke with President Trump on his unfounded allegations of voter fraud, telling the Associated Press he had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

Tension already had been simmering between the two men for months because Barr did not on the eve of the election release results from Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the FBI’s probe of Trump’s 2016 campaign, which Trump thought might be a political windfall. And after Barr’s comments, the president’s frustration was compounded when Hunter Biden revealed he was under federal investigation for possible tax crimes, and Barr had apparently kept that probe a relative secret, too.

Trump told Fox News recently that Barr “should have stepped up” and publicized the case — which would have violated Justice Department policy.

“All he had to do is say an investigation’s going on,” Trump said, adding later, “When you affect an election, Bill Barr, frankly, did the wrong thing.

After a meeting with Trump last week, Barr handed in his resignation, saying he intended to leave this Wednesday.

Since then, Trump has intensified his effort to overturn the results of the election. On Sunday, he said in a radio interview that he had spoken with Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) about challenging the electoral vote count when the House and Senate convene on Jan. 6 to formally affirm Biden’s victory.

And at a frenetic Oval Office meeting days earlier, he seemed to entertain other steps that some advisers warned are baseless and exceed the bounds of his power.

A frustrated Trump redoubles efforts to overturn election result

He suggested, for example, naming lawyer Sidney Powell — who has promoted the wild, false claim that Venezuelan communists programmed U.S. voting machines to flip votes for Biden — as a special counsel to investigate voter fraud, though the idea appeared to be a non-starter, people familiar with the meeting have said.

Barr had previously seemed to throw cold water on Powell’s allegation of a grand conspiracy, telling the Associated Press, “There’s been one assertion that would be systemic fraud, and that would be the claim that machines were programmed essentially to skew the election results. And the DHS and DOJ have looked into that, and so far, we haven’t seen anything to substantiate that.”

Trump also suggested that homeland security officials should seize state voting machines and investigate alleged fraud, though acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf and other homeland security officials have previously told the White House they have no authority to do so unless states ask for inspections or investigations.

Powell was present at the meeting, as was Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s disgraced national security adviser who has said publicly Trump could use the military to “basically rerun an election.” Flynn came to the Oval Office to discuss that idea, people familiar with the matter said, though Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone pushed back “strenuously.” Trump later tweeted, “Martial law = Fake News.

Trump and his political allies had in recent weeks been pressuring the Justice Department, in particular, to appoint a special counsel to explore his unfounded claims of voter fraud. On Dec. 9, 27 House Republicans wrote to Trump urging him to direct Barr to make such a move, and Trump retweeted a post from Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) that contained an image of the letter and appealed to the Justice Department to act immediately. “The DOJ needs to listen to #WeThePeople and address their election concerns NOW,” Budd wrote.

Some Republicans have similarly called for a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden. After Barr’s news conference, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote on Twitter that he was concerned the current Justice Department investigation would not be sufficiently broad.

“My concern is the scope of the Delaware investigation is limited to tax fraud and will not be a thorough review of Hunter Biden’s extensive business dealings with foreign nations,” Graham wrote. “The question for the country is: to what extent did Hunter Biden and his family have problematic business dealings with China, Russia, and other nations which could impact the Biden administration’s foreign policy? Some investigative body needs to take a broader view beyond the tax issue.”

Whoever President-elect Biden picks as attorney general is likely to also face pressure to appoint a special counsel to assure the public the probe will be conducted free of White House interference.

Barr said at the news conference that he knew when he accepted the attorney general job, it would be a difficult one, but added: “I don’t regret coming in.” In addition to breaking with Trump on election fraud, Barr also seemed to put himself at odds with Trump in attributing recently uncovered cyberhacks of the U.S. government to Russia. Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already done so, Trump later suggested on Twitter China might be the culprit.

“From the information I have, I agree with Secretary Pompeo’s assessment,” Barr said. “It certainly appears to be the Russians.”

After he departs on Wednesday, leadership of the department will fall to Rosen, who declined to answer questions in a recent interview with Reuters about whether he would name special counsels to investigate voter fraud or Hunter Biden. Rosen did not appear at Monday’s news conference.