Politico: Barr ordered DoJ to quietly probe voter-fraud claims -- which debunked them

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

Was this by accident — or by design? The exposé from Politico doesn’t really answer the question, even as it puts William Barr center stage for the Department of Justice’s handling of voter-fraud claims, especially in Georgia. Barr changed the rules on such investigations, pressing the FBI into probes of fraud claims from Donald Trump and his supporters before the states certified their election results.

If Barr intended on helping Trump make his case, that effort backfired. But was that the intent?

The dispute pitted a senior career section chief against one of the DOJ’s top officials, with the FBI caught in the crossfire. Trump’s appointees at DOJ ultimately prevailed, and their investigation — a probe into a viral video from Georgia that didn’t actually find any evidence of fraud — ended up playing a role in torpedoing the president’s narrative. While Trump’s opponents fretted that the FBI’s involvement would undermine public confidence in elections and boost Republican talking points, it had the opposite effect.

At the time of the email dispute, Trump and his allies were lobbing a host of allegations about voter fraud, claiming wide-reaching and nefarious forces had conspired to steal the election for Biden. One allegation in particular commanded the president’s attention: a video showing election workers counting ballots at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Trump’s allies claimed it showed the workers secretly pulling ballots out of “suitcases” and using them to commit election fraud.

Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger debunked the claim, and subsequent recounts showed no massive increase in votes. Normally the FBI and DoJ wouldn’t intercede, but Barr ordered the FBI to check it out anyway. The e-mails uncovered by Politico suggest that Barr may have wanted to amplify Raffensperger’s point — or at least demonstrated that due diligence had been performed at multiple levels:

Barr had told Donoghue that the FBI needed to conduct some interviews about the State Farm allegations rather than relying solely on the secretary of state’s investigation, he informed Bowdich.

“It may well be that the GA SOS is correct in concluding that nothing nefarious happened there,” Donoghue continued, “but the fact is that millions of Americans have come to believe (rightly or wrongly) that something untoward took place and it is incumbent on the Department to timely conduct a limited investigation to assure the American people that we have looked at these claims.”

“If we come to the same conclusion as the GA SOS, then that should give the public increased confidence in the election results in GA,” Donoghue argued. “If we come to a different conclusion, then we’ll deal with that. Either way, the AG made it clear that he wants to be sure that we are actually doing our job and not just standing on the sidelines.”

Barr’s decision to allow for investigations proved “consequential,” report Betsy Woodruff Swan and Nicholas Wu, but not in the way people would have predicted. It allowed the DoJ to categorically state that no evidence of widespread fraud had been found, effectively undercutting Trump’s arguments. Furthermore, it allowed Barr’s replacements to stand firm under pressure from the White House after Barr’s departure:

Barr’s decision to have the DOJ charge ahead on voter fraud investigations also proved consequential. Even before the internal debate over the Georgia video, the FBI had scrutinized other allegations and found them unpersuasive. And in an interview with the AP published December 1, 2020, Barr said he’d seen no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome. …

By the start of the New Year, Barr had resigned and leadership of the department had fallen to his deputy Jeffrey Rosen, who soon became entangled in the president’s efforts — efforts he successfully stiff-armed.

That leaves us with two possibilities. Either William Barr attempted to rescue Donald Trump with an extraordinary intervention and got gobsmacked by reality, or Barr knew full well that the fraud claims were nonsense and wanted to put the DoJ’s imprimatur on that reality. If it was the former, Barr wouldn’t have gone public on December 1 with that statement to the AP, as well as to other media outlets around the same time. If it was the latter, it explains why Barr stuck around until the end of December, by which time Rosen had plenty of evidence to hold off the pressure campaign from the Trump White House.

Some could claim a third possibility — that Barr was somehow complicit in a cover-up of massive fraud. The record contradicts that, however. Nothing in these e-mails remotely suggests that Barr ran the investigations, but only ordered that they take place. The investigations got conducted by the FBI and reviewed by officials at the DoJ, who then reported the results to Barr. If Barr wanted to cook the outcomes, he had plenty of ways to ensure that happened, starting with an embrace of Trump’s allies in the election challenges.

Besides, what benefit would Barr have had in throwing the election to Joe Biden? Democrats and their allies in the news media had spent the past two years pillorying Barr as a Trump toady, so Barr had no prospects of any sort in either government or media. To benefit from such a scheme, Barr would have had to promote himself in a similar manner as James Comey did from 2016-2019, as The Savior of American Democracy or some such. He could have used these e-mails to make the argument that he prevented a “coup” from taking place as early as January 7, 2021 and reinvented himself into a Comeyesque media hero. Instead, Barr has kept the lowest of profiles since his resignation in December 2020. Barr seems happy to have gotten out, and presumably figures that exposés such as these will eventually vindicate him, whether Barr himself points it out or not.

Perhaps this will provide vindication of sorts for Barr. But perhaps Barr is past the point of caring about it, too.