Then-President Donald Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr at the White House in May 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Donald Trump could never really count on the lawyers.

No matter how many cynical or craven congressmen, toadying aides, grifting consultants, unhinged activists, disinforming talking heads and deluded cultists he may have had, Trump still needed the lawyers. He needed serious members of the bar to provide at least some semblance of a legal justification for his attempted self-coup.

They never did.

Nearly six months after Jan. 6, as Trump’s private business stands on the verge of indictment, we’ve been learning more about how lawyers stood in the way of his attempt to commit the ultimate abuse of public trust during his final days in office.

The latest revelations involve former attorney general William P. Barr. An excerpt from a forthcoming book by ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl describes what Barr thought about the 45th president’s claims of electoral fraud: “It was all bulls---t." The Justice Department “realized from the beginning it was just bulls---." No legal term, English or Latin, fits better than that.

Barr shared a similar assessment with Trump at the White House on Dec. 1, 2020, Karl reports. You’ve shown no fraud, Barr explained, and yet “your people keep on shoveling this s--- out.”

Barr’s opposition left Trump enraged. One attendee described the president as having “the eyes and mannerism of a madman.” The book reports that the “livid” president responded by saying, “You must hate Trump. You must hate Trump.”

To be sure, Barr’s rectitude that day doesn’t excuse his earlier kowtowing to Trump or his politicization of the Justice Department. And what Barr had done to precipitate his confrontation with Trump — issuing a bombshell public statement that the Justice Department had found no significant electoral fraud — didn’t exactly arise from high-minded motive: Karl reports that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had prevailed upon Barr to make the announcement, fearing that Trump’s campaign to overturn the presidential election would cost their party the Senate.

But make no mistake: Barr, in Karl’s telling, did the right thing by refusing to treat Trump’s fraud claims as anything other than what he believed them to be: factual and legal manure.

And after Barr had resigned in the wake of that fiery confrontation, the remaining political appointees at the Justice Department similarly stood up to Trump. Barr’s successor, then-Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, steadfastly refused Trump’s demand that the department seek to overturn the election.

Rosen did that despite knowing that the president might replace him with Jeffrey Clark, an official who was apparently eager to do Trump’s bidding. The remaining members of the Justice Department’s senior leadership likewise stood firm. They entered into a bureaucratic suicide pact by which they would all resign if Rosen were fired.

Emails recently unearthed by a congressional investigation show that Trump and his White House relentlessly urged these senior Justice Department officials to put Trump’s interests over the nation’s, and to follow Trump’s desires over the rule of law. They balked — and succeeded in running out the clock on Trump’s mendacious claims and his term of office.

Not attempting to destroy constitutional democracy would seem to be a low standard for members of the bar. And it is. But the importance of these lawyers’ refusals to behave lawlessly in the waning days of Trump’s presidency can’t be overstated.

As Barr put it at the White House with Trump on Dec. 1, according to Karl, “No self-respecting lawyer” would go “anywhere near” the president’s meritless claims. He was right: A number of lawyers quit their representation of Trump’s campaign as the absurdity of his claims became clear.

Their assessment was upheld by Trump-appointed judges, who in turn dealt scathing decisional blows to Trump’s electoral-fraud litigation charade. Those jurists included Stephanos Bibas, an appellate court appointee from Pennsylvania who emphatically affirmed that “democracy depends on counting all lawful votes promptly and finally not setting them aside without weighty proof.”

Precisely because good lawyers couldn’t fathom Trump’s false claims of fraud, Trump was left with what Barr aptly called a “clown show” of a legal effort — the clown show led by Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani got his well-earned due last week. His ceaseless public lying in support of Trump led a New York court to suspend his license to practice law because his conduct had undermined “the profession’s role as a crucial source of reliable information.”

The lawyers of the Trump era weren’t perfect — far from it — but Americans should still be grateful there were more Rosens than Giulianis. Even Barr deserves some credit.

And for that, in the end, we owe the essential culture of America’s legal profession. As exemplified by the decision suspending Giuliani, that culture, at its best, seeks to vindicate factual truth and the rule of law — values entirely anathematic to Trump. Which is why the lawyers could never really be on his side.

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