But it was on Trump's current favorite subject — the purported threat posed by mail-in balloting — where Barr's willingness to parrot the president was most obvious.
“This is dealing with fire,” Barr told Blitzer about expanding voting by mail. “This is playing with fire."
“We’re very closely divided country here, and people have to have confidence in the results of the election and the legitimacy of the government,” Barr said. “And people trying to change the rules to this methodology, which as a matter of logic is very open to fraud and coercion is reckless and dangerous, and the people are playing with fire.”
As a political argument, that statement feels effective: changing how Americans vote at a time when tensions are high and questions rampant is risky. But just about every part of the statement is misleading or exaggerated or unsupported by the evidence Barr would at other points present.
For example, claiming that expanding mail-in balloting is “changing the rules” is like saying that restaurants moving to outdoor service is “changing the rules.” There’s a reason for the shift: limiting the risk posed by the coronavirus. Admittedly, it’s not ideal, but it’s also something that could have been done all along.
Then there’s Barr’s citing “logic” to dismiss mail balloting as risky. He did so again at another point in his interview with Blitzer:
BLITZER: You’ve said you were worried that a foreign country could send thousands of fake ballots, thousands of fake ballots to people that it might be impossible to detect. What are you basing that on?BARR: I’m basing — as I’ve said repeatedly, I’m basing that on logic.BLITZER: Pardon?BARR: Logic.
You know who else falls back on “logic” as a defense of their beliefs? QAnon adherents.
There is, in fact, essentially no way that a foreign country could submit thousands of ballots without detection. For one thing, any number of those ballots would conflict with existing submitted ballots and be rejected. For another, ballots meet particular design and production standards that would need to be matched. But most important, ballots submitted by mail are validated upon receipt, usually by matching the ballot’s signature to the recorded signature for the voter. As a forgery expert with whom we spoke in June made clear, this would be nearly impossible to fake.
Barr elevated another argument that has become common as Trump has targeted mail-in ballots.
“A bipartisan commission chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker said back in 2009,” Barr said, “that a mail-in voting is fraught with the risk of fraud and coercion."
Notice the important difference between what the Carter-Baker team wrote and what Barr said. Barr claimed that mail-in voting was “fraught with risk.” The commission said that it was “the largest source of fraud” — but not that fraud is common, because it isn't.
Before compiling its report, the group looked at existing mail-in voting systems and offered recommendations for change. This was 15 years ago, since which states have broadly expanded mail-in voting options. A Post analysis of 14.6 million ballots cast by mail in 2016 and 2018 found only 372 possible instances in which someone might have voted twice or where a ballot might have been submitted for a deceased person. If each of those votes was, in fact, fraudulent, it would mean that 0.003 percent of votes in those two years were suspect. To put that in grim context, that’s 1/22nd the percentage of Americans who have died of the coronavirus. If all of those ballots were actually fraudulent.
One person who doesn’t believe the Carter-Baker commission’s admonitions should apply this year? Jimmy Carter.
To bolster his point, Barr pointed to a Justice Department indictment.
“We indicted someone in Texas, 1,700 ballots collected from people who could vote,” Barr told Blitzer. “He made them out and voted for the person he wanted to.”
First of all, an example of someone being arrested for breaking the law is not a good example of how elections are tainted by people breaking the law without detection. The point is precisely that committing massive fraud is hard to get away with should someone have wanted to do it, and the Justice Department, per Barr, caught someone doing it.
But it’s not clear what Barr is talking about. A review of news reports and the Justice Department website turned up no such indictment.
Update: The Justice Department confirmed to The Post that this incident didn’t happen.
In an interview with The Washington Post, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) expressed incredulity at Barr’s comments.
“I found it astonishing,” Raskin said, referring to Barr’s comments on voting by mail being like “playing with fire.”
“It is Attorney General Barr who is playing with fire. This is the hallmark of authoritarianism: To undermine an election and its processes and then to turn around and claim the election is fraudulent,” he said. “Donald Trump and his sycophant, Bill Barr, are doing everything they can to create electoral chaos.”
At another point in that interview, Blitzer asked Barr how many indictments the department had obtained for voter fraud.
“I couldn't tell you off the top of my head, but several I know of,” Barr replied.
“Like, a handful?” Blitzer asked.
“I can’t — I don’t know,” Barr said.
“Well, 'several' doesn't sound like too many,” Blitzer replied.
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t know how many we have,” Barr said. “I know there are a number of investigations right now. Some very big ones in states."
Perhaps this is true. But an assertion from the attorney general that we should assume something is problematic solely because his Justice Department is looking into it — the Justice Department that’s scraping together a rationalization for Trump’s “I was spied on” theories; the Justice Department that’s targeting Democratic governors over their handling of the pandemic; the Justice Department that’s coming up with a list of “anarchist jurisdictions” — should be taken with some amount of skepticism.
Responsible media outlets will.
Tom Hamburger contributed to this article.