Barr has offered fresh details about Trump’s effort to subvert the election to journalist Jonathan Karl. These are supposed to be exonerating. But they open up new lines of inquiry about the post-election conduct of Barr himself, and show that the machinations of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are more depraved than we knew.
Barr’s main revelation concerns his break with Trump on Dec. 1, when Barr publicly declared that the Justice Department had not seen election fraud “on a scale” that would have changed the outcome. This enraged Trump.
Several weeks before, in early November, Barr had taken the extraordinary step of authorizing U.S. attorneys to open election fraud investigations. The move attracted scalding criticism — the department had long refrained from such investigations until results are certified, to avoid this very sort of politicization.
Barr is now claiming he always knew the fraud claims were nonsense. As he told Karl, “my suspicion all the way" was that they were "all bulls--t.”
And there’s this:
Barr told me he had already concluded that it was highly unlikely that evidence existed that would tip the scales in the election…He also knew that at some point, Trump was going to confront him about the allegations, and he wanted to be able to say that he had looked into them and that they were unfounded.
But this isn’t exonerating in the least. Barr is unintentionally admitting that he ordered a highly controversial change in department policy — one designed to insulate the department from getting drawn into disputes over election outcomes — even though he had already concluded there was no basis to the election fraud claims.
“He’s essentially admitting that he opened the door to criminal prosecutions, and changed long-standing policy that was there for the protection of elections, without any basis in evidence,” Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me.
This is “really problematic and very disturbing," Bookbinder said.
The least charitable interpretation here is that Barr ordered the shift to sustain Trump’s narrative of a fraudulent election. Barr, of course, already had a history of using the department to prop up Trump’s political narratives, having released a highly misleading summary of the special counsel report that allowed Trump to spin exoneration.
Yes, Barr ultimately did admit there was not substantial election fraud, but he hedged, saying there wasn’t enough to swing the outcome. And he said this after it had become unavoidably obvious that Trump’s court challenges would fail.
The more charitable interpretation is that Barr greenlighted election fraud investigations merely to arm himself to contest Trump’s pressure to demonstrate that his loss was illegitimate. But even if so, the shift was still made to placate Trump.
“Even if you accept his motive, it was not that he was doing this for the good of the country and to protect the integrity of elections,” Bookbinder told me. “It’s still driven by what Trump says and what Trump wants, which is inherently an improper basis for changing policy on what prosecutors can look into.”
All of which opens the door to further inquiry. One possibility might be for Congress to demand documents from the department relating to this policy shift, to try to show the lack of any serious predicate for it or internal deliberation demonstrating it was baseless.
“We are considering further investigation of this, and Congress should as well,” Bookbinder told me.
This comes as a Democratic investigation has already unearthed a host of new documents showing that Trump went to extraordinary lengths on other fronts to pressure the department into helping subvert the election. There’s likely a lot more to unearth.
McConnell looks even worse
On another front, Barr told Karl that McConnell had privately urged him to go public all along with the truth about fake election fraud. McConnell didn’t want to publicly take on Trump, fearing it would imperil GOP chances in the Georgia runoffs.
McConnell did this, Karl reports, even though he believed Trump’s lies were “damaging to the country." As Rick Hasen and Quinta Jurecic point out, this shows McConnell asked Barr to use the department for the purpose of managing a GOP political problem and that McConnell spent weeks refusing to acknowledge Trump’s loss while knowing this was hurting the country.
There is little chance this wasn’t done in consultation with McConnell, to keep Trump voters engaged. We now know this happened despite McConnell concluding that feeding Trump’s election lies was hurting the country. Indeed, moves like that surely helped inspire the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The real upshot of Barr’s exoneration tour is that it strengthens the case for a fuller fumigation of Trump’s effort to subvert the election — and his bone-deep corruption of the government to help him do it.