I have a complicated relationship with Bill Barr.
On one hand, in 2021, I wrote a book about him called Hatchet Man: How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor’s Code and Corrupted the Justice Department – the title leaves little to the imagination – wherein I argue that, as attorney general, he was a liar and a political goon. On the other hand, as Barr continues his public image rehab tour on the cable networks, I find myself agreeing with much (but certainly not all) of his legal commentary about the various prosecutions of Donald Trump. Barr is a far better legal analyst than attorney general, it turns out.
Perhaps it’s not quite right for me to call it a “relationship,” because this is decidedly a one-way affair. I’ve never met or communicated with Barr, though I offered to interview him many times, during his tenure as AG and afterwards. He and his people never responded. I’m certain he knows of me and my book – that’s been confirmed to me by more than one person who knows him – and I assume he can’t possibly be fond of either. Hey, I get it.
It didn’t have to be this way. In the book, I quote myself from a fateful day in December 2018, when I happened to be on set at CNN at the moment Barr’s name first surfaced as Trump’s likely AG nominee: “What you want is somebody who’s qualified, who’s serious, and who’s respected. And by all accounts, William Barr is all of those things.” I didn’t have it out for Barr from the get-go. To the contrary, I endorsed him, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. But he quickly and decisively proved himself unworthy.
Barr has spent the past year or so trying to re-cast himself as a hero who stood up to Trump in December 2020 – weeks after the election, importantly – by telling the public that DOJ had found no evidence of widespread election fraud, and by telling Trump directly that his claims of such fraud were “bullshit.” Accordingly, it has been widely suggested that Barr might be some kind of star witness for Jack Smith or Fani Willis in their prosecutions of Trump for his effort to steal the 2020 election. But in fact, Barr would be a disaster on the stand; to call him would, if anything, tee up the case beautifully for Trump’s defense.
It’s easy to see the allure of Barr as a prosecution witness. Members of the jury, behold: Trump’s own chosen attorney general, the guy who would know best, told Trump to his face there was no evidence of election fraud. Hence, Trump knew he lost, or reasonably should have known. Hence, he had criminal intent when he tried to get the election results reversed. Hence, he’s guilty. Done and done.
Oh, if only things were so simple for prosecutors. Barr’s viability as a witness stands on the same bogus foundation as his current campaign to cast himself as a truth-telling hero. The crucial part that Barr always leaves out, and hopes to erase from history, is this: he spent the better part of a year, during the crucial run-up to the 2020 election, publicly supporting Trump’s claims of impending, unstoppable, un-policeable 2020 election fraud, fanning the flames that would ultimately explode on January 6. Let’s run through some examples.
- In a June 2020 interview with NPR, Barr declared that mail-in ballots present “so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed. I think it would be very bad.” He also raised “the possibility of counterfeiting.” NPR later ran an article titled “NPR Let the U.S. Attorney General Tell a Falsehood on the Air,” quoting experts who labeled Barr’s claims “nuts,” “preposterous,” and “false.”
- In July 2020 Congressional testimony, Barr warned that foreign countries could generate countless fraudulent mail-in ballots, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon asked Barr, “But, in fact, you have no evidence that foreign countries can successfully sway our elections with counterfeit ballots, do you?” Barr responded, “No, I don’t. But I have common sense.”
- In a September 2020 interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Barr cited as evidence of large-scale election fraud, “we indicted someone in Texas, 1,700 ballots collected, from people who could vote, he made them out and voted for the person he wanted to. Okay?” In fact, (1) that was not a DOJ case (it was a state case), and (2) it involved one single fraudulent ballot. Not seventeen hundred – one. After the interview, DOJ issued a mealy-mouthed, blame-shifting retraction, which surely was seen by a miniscule fraction of the people who viewed Barr’s dire claim in the original CNN interview.
So what happens at Trump’s trial after Barr delivers his heroic direct testimony about how he called out Trump’s election fraud lie in December 2020? He gets cross-examined by Trump’s lawyers. And they make Barr admit that he spent months publicly endorsing and bolstering Trump’s election fraud claims, to Congress and in the national media. (If Barr hems and haws and busts out the characteristic jumbled legalese that marked his term as AG, Trump’s lawyers can just play the clips of what Barr actually said, at the time, for the jury.) Barr’s testimony, then, walks right into this line of defense:
“Members of the jury, let’s look at Bill Barr – the prosecution’s star witness. He’s the guy who knows best, right? He was the attorney general of the United States.
Well, guess what: he admitted on cross-exam – he had no choice – that he spent months before the election telling the public, and Congress, and Trump himself that there would be massive election fraud, and that that fraud could not possibly be prevented or policed. Sure, Barr did a belated last-second turnabout, after the fact, on his way out the door. But was it crazy for Trump to go with what Barr had spent the prior year saying? What if you had a trusted advisor who told you (and everyone else) yes, yes, yes, for many months – but then suddenly turned around and said, actually, no. Would it be wrong for you to go with yes? Would it be criminal? Should Donald Trump go to prison because he believed what he was originally told, many times over, by Barr – the very same man the prosecution wants you to believe now?”
There’s a natural tendency to look for that star witness, the “next John Dean” and whatnot. But the problem is trial testimony isn’t the same as a self-aggrandizing book tour (Barr wrote one too, about his own tenure) or a six-minute cable tv segment. On cross-examination, Barr won’t be able to run away from his own words and conduct. Barr spent far too long as a Trump sycophant and lackey, and it’s too late now to whitewash that history.
Bill Barr is not Jack Smith’s savior, folks. To the contrary, he could tank the case. Smith still may well be able to prove his charges, but if he thinks he’s going to do it on the back of Bill Barr, he’s in for a brutal surprise.
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