"It was all bullsh*t": Bill Barr on how he confronted Trump about his election fraud claims

Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen

I can’t tell who’s more upset about this, righties who resent Barr for throwing cold water on the rigged-election conspiracy theory or lefties who resent him for trying to rehabilitate himself after his otherwise loyal service to Trump.

There’s a dramatic component to this scoop and a newsy component and they’re not the same. The dramatic component is Barr finally working up the nerve to tell a reporter on December 1 of last year that the DOJ had seen no evidence of widespread fraud in the election, a claim which he knew would break his relationship with his boss irreparably. This scene recounted by Jonathan Karl confirms my suspicion that if a movie about the 2020 post-election period is ever made, the only genre that can do it justice is dark comedy.

Trump brought up Barr’s AP interview [alleging no evidence of fraud].

“Did you say that?”

“Yes,” Barr responded.

“How the f*** could you do this to me? Why did you say it?”

“Because it’s true.”

The president, livid, responded by referring to himself in the third person: “You must hate Trump. You must hate Trump.”

“Only people who hate Trump would believe an unhelpful truth” is a fine summation of the GOP’s approach to politics now. Barr wasn’t done, though, allegedly telling Trump that day that if he was serious about overturning an election on fraud grounds he should have gotten a top-flight team of lawyers to challenge the results instead of the Giuliani clown show. (In Trump’s defense, he couldn’t find any top-flight lawyers willing to work for him.) “You may be right about that,” the president supposedly told him. May be?

That’s the drama. The news is that both Barr and Mitch McConnell prioritized politics over civic duty in deciding how and when to weigh in about “stop the steal.” Despite telling Karl that his “suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there,” Barr famously broke with DOJ precedent in November by authorizing U.S. Attorneys to open voter-fraud cases if circumstances warranted. Typically the DOJ waits until after an election is certified to start sniffing around for that, not wanting to influence the certification process by sending any signals that might delegitimize it before it’s over. Barr did what he did seemingly to humor Trump, notwithstanding his skepticism that the president was full of it and what it might do to color public perceptions about the election.

And when he did finally speak up to say there’s no there there, he did so at McConnell’s behest. Why? Because McConnell was too gutless to do it himself. He put Barr up to it, believing it would be messy for the GOP to have the Senate majority leader and the president publicly at odds over the election. Cocaine Mitch is forever consumed with the next election and he had two big ones coming up in the Georgia Senate runoffs, which would ultimately decide control of the chamber. If McConnell had contradicted Trump and assured Republican voters that there was no reason to doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, it would have caused a massive rift in the party and wrecked the GOP’s chances in Georgia. He was prepared to (and did) subordinate his own civic obligations to the political imperative to humor Trump, just as Barr did in November.

We’re left to wonder what McConnell would have done if Barr had refused to say anything. Would he have denounced “stop the steal” and Trump’s ringleading efforts (which he did in February after the impeachment vote, long after Georgia’s Senate races had been decided)? Or would he have bitten his tongue too?

It’s an important question, because the timidity of Republicans in challenging Trump on his election claims has consequences:

Rank-and-file Republicans are about as likely as QAnoners and people who believe the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real(!) to believe in election conspiracy theories. And more than a third of that rank and file say they would have condoned Trump staging an honest-to-goodness coup by trying to cling to power on “fraud” grounds. So many Republicans have come to believe in election-rigging, in fact, that more of them believe Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are at least somewhat responsible for the Capitol riot on January 6 than believe Trump is. The only way I can explain that result is if GOPers believe the riot was warranted, or at least “understandable,” because Democrats had cheated so brazenly.

Maybe I’m being too optimistic, though, in thinking that a strong denunciation of “stop the steal” during November or December by McConnell or anyone else would have influenced Republican opinion. Charlie Sykes makes some fair points about the takeaways from Jonathan Karl’s scoop:

There is, however, a lesson here. For Barr, as with Mike Pence, there was a line that even the most devoted toadies were not willing to cross.

On one level, that’s hopeful, on another, it is hard not to be cynical about the amount of denial, delusion, and self loathing that went into their performative sycophancy.

They knew what they were getting; they knew what they were doing; they knew who Trump was. And yet they worked to empower him until they couldn’t anymore…

It’s also worth reflecting on this: Despite the credibility that Barr had built up as a Trump loyalist, his open and forceful rejection of the lies about the election seems to have little or no impact on opinion in the MAGAverse.

There were few Trump cabinet members whose loyalty was less in doubt on the morning of December 1 than Bill Barr. And still, his bombshell announcement that there was no evidence of widespread fraud was spun instantly by righties not as grounds for questioning the merit of Trump’s claims but for questioning the extent of Barr’s loyalty. There’s no reason to think McConnell challenging Trump would have been received any differently. Remember, the single most loyal official in the Trump administration was nearly hanged by crazed MAGA fans on January 6 when he concluded that trying to block Biden’s certification was one loyalty bridge too far.

So maybe we were always destined for GOPers being indistinguishable from QAnoners in their views of the election. When there’s no other authority on the right with the credibility to challenge Trump, Trump’s own beliefs are orthodoxy, however crazy they are. I’ll leave you with his statements responding to Barr and McConnell this weekend, which are vintage Trump. (Click the images for full-sized text, which runs for several panels in the first tweet.) They’re also Exhibit A in why Liz Cheney keeps contradicting him about the election whenever she’s asked about it. He won’t stop so she won’t either.