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Barr’s quest to dismantle Trump’s classified-document defenses

Former attorney general William P. Barr (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The continued revelations about Donald Trump’s handling of sensitive government documents at Mar-a-Lago have brought often disparate and speculative defenses from his allies. The lack of public details about the investigation makes mounting a defense difficult, so any number of things have been thrown at the wall: the idea that Trump was actually cooperating with the government, the baseless idea that the FBI planted documents, the oversimplified and unsubstantiated idea that he had declassified these documents, the idea that this is merely a “document” or “storage” issue, etc.

But as those attempted defenses have proliferated, a perhaps unlikely source has stepped forward to rebut many of them: Trump’s own formerly loyal attorney general, William P. Barr.

Here’s a sampling of Barr’s comments over the past week, along with the Trump defenses they rebut.

The defense: Trump declassified the documents

Barr: “I don’t believe he did.”

“I, frankly, am skeptical of this claim that ‘I declassified everything.’ I think it’s highly improbable. … If in fact he sort of stood over scores of boxes, not really knowing what was in them, and said, ‘I hereby declassify everything in here,’ that would be such an abuse, and — that shows such recklessness that it’s almost worse than taking the documents.”

The defense: Trump might have had a valid reason to take them

Barr: “I can’t think of a legitimate reason why they should have been — could be taken out of government, away from the government if they are classified.” (Barr added there was “no justification” for taking such documents.)

“There is no scenario, legally, under which the president gets to keep the government documents — whether it’s classified or unclassified. If it deals with government stuff, it goes back to the government.”

The defense: The search is unprecedented — what about Hillary Clinton?

Barr: “People say this was unprecedented. But it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club, okay?”

What about Clinton’s emails? How Trump’s document controversy differs.

The defense: Trump was cooperating before the DOJ sprang a search on him

Barr: “They [the government] jawboned for a year, they were deceived on the voluntary actions taken, they then went and got a subpoena, they were deceived on that — they feel. The facts are starting to show they were being jerked around, so how long do they wait?”

There’s some evidence to suggest that they were deceived. … And none of that really relates to the content of documents. It relates to the fact that there were documents there, and the fact that they were classified and the fact that they were subpoenaed and never delivered.”

The defense: The government took other documents that weren’t classified

Barr: “What people are missing is that all the other documents taken, even if they claim to be executive privilege, either belong to the government because they are government records — even if they are classified, even if they are subject to executive privilege. They still belong to the government and go to the [National] Archives.”

The defense: The ruling for a special master shows Trump had executive privilege

Barr: “The opinion, I think, was wrong, and I think the government should appeal it. It’s deeply flawed in a number of ways.”

I think if DOJ appeals, eventually it will be overturned. I hope they expedite it, but it could take several months to get that straightened out.”

I don’t think the appointment of a special master is going to hold up. But even if it does, I don’t see it fundamentally changing the trajectory. In other words, I don’t think it changes the ballgame so much as maybe we’ll have a rain delay for a couple of innings.”

“[Judge Aileen Cannon] didn’t address the only question that’s in dispute, which is, can the former president have standing to say that the investigators don’t even get to look at the documents — the classified documents that he wrongfully had at Mar-a-Lago? That’s the only question. And she dodges it.”

Barr becomes the latest key Trump ally to step forward to break with him and undercut his defenses for his actions. And in the past, perhaps not coincidentally, those red lines have often pertained to issues of national security and foreign policy. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ultimately broke with Trump over the president’s plans to withdraw from Syria and the Lafayette Square photo op. Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said Trump tried to do illegal things and wasn’t disciplined enough. Former national security adviser John Bolton spoke out about the Ukraine scandal and Trump’s handling of Russia. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland confirmed a quid pro quo in the former. And after Jan. 6, 2021, several key figures, including Cabinet secretaries, resigned, with some (including, most notably, Barr) providing key testimony against Trump to the House select committee.

The warrant authorizing the search of former president Donald Trump’s home said agents were seeking documents possessed in violation of the Espionage Act. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Nearly all of these personal evolutions have raised the hackles of Trump critics who long wondered where these people were during the many controversies that preceded their breaking points. Certainly, there is some value in reputation management now that Trump is out of office. Barr is also promoting a book. And perhaps nobody went further for Trump, and in controversial ways, than he did in his short stint as attorney general.

But that also reinforces the significance of what Barr is saying now. This is the guy, according to a judge’s finding, who misled about and spun the Russia investigation in a way that accrued significantly to Trump’s benefit. This is the guy who took an extraordinarily broad view of presidential power, but even he is now saying a president can’t do that.

He might have an agenda — specifically, preventing the GOP from nominating a former president he doesn’t want at the top of the ticket in 2024. But he’s providing some of the most significant rebuttals of the idea that Trump’s retaining these documents is a nothingburger and that the FBI search was overzealous. And he’s also, importantly, doing so on Fox News.