Opinion

Don't fall for the Bill Barr rebrand

He defied Trump — but just barely

Bill Barr isn't a hero. He waited until the very last moment to do the absolute bare minimum. 

On Sunday The Atlantic published a story detailing how, at a critical moment a few weeks after the 2020 election won by Joe Biden, Barr — Donald Trump's attorney general — undercut the former president's claims of election fraud. It's a piece that reads mostly like it is intended to bolster Barr's own battered reputation: He cooperated with the story's author, ABC News Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl, and the article is peppered with spicy details about Trump acting like a "madman" as he sought to defy the vote.

"If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it," Barr told Karl. "But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit."

Sounds steadfast, even valiant. But one leaves the story with a renewed sense that some of the most powerful men in America — and certainly those within Trump's orbit — were cowards who shirked their obligation to make a full-throated declaration that Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

That's literally true in the case of Barr, who summoned an Associated Press reporter to lunch on Dec. 1 to publicly state that no election fraud had been found. Barr mumbled his announcement "between bites of salad," Karl reports, forcing a Department of Justice spokesperson to step in and ask Barr to repeat himself so the reporter could hear what he had just said.

Barr did so.

"To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election," Barr said. His words were soon broadcast to the world, and they enraged Trump — but, of course, the news did little to stop Trump's efforts to overturn the election.

Barr stepped forward at that moment mostly because then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wouldn't. McConnell knew that Trump's claims of fraud were false and damaging to the country, but he also didn't think he could afford to alienate the president while Republicans were still trying to hold onto Georgia's two U.S. Senate seats in a Jan. 5 runoff election. (Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock ultimately won, giving Dems control of Congress' upper chamber.)

"Look, we need the president in Georgia," McConnell told Barr, "and so we cannot be frontally attacking him right now. But you're in a better position to inject some reality into this situation. You are really the only one who can do it." McConnell, who confirmed this account to Karl, wouldn't affirm Biden's victory until six weeks after the election. At a moment when the choice between his party and his country couldn't have been more clear, McConnell chose his party — and urged Barr to clean up the mess.

So Barr probably deserves some credit for going against Trump in a fragile moment. But when it came time to resign from the president's service, Barr still did so in the most sycophantic fashion possible — with an anti-anti-Trump letter that decried Democrats and their "abusive and deceitful" campaign against the president. Democracy was hanging in the balance, but Barr still couldn't fully abandon the man who put it in danger. Trump loved the letter, of course.

"This is pretty good," he told Barr.

Barr's brief moment of mumbled defiance came after nearly two years in which he constantly enabled Trump's assaults on the law — most famously giving misleading public statements about the Mueller Report investigation into the Trump campaign's 2016 contacts with Russia, attempting to drop charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and using the Department of Justice to pursue Trump's enemies. If Trump expected Barr to go along with his efforts to overturn the election, he had ample reason.

Instead, American democracy dodged a bullet. But even now, months after Trump left office, democracy remains in danger because of the processes he set in motion. Barr was part of that process. "Good people don't end up in positions of authority in awful regimes," the writer Julian Sanchez noted on Sunday. "So a lot turns on bad people with some sort of red line."  

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