Monday, June 28, 2021


Yesterday, The Atlantic published Jonathan Karl's interview with Bill Barr, who was a Donald Trump hatchetman as attorney general until he broke with Trump in early December 2020, telling a reporter that Trump's attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential were unjustified.
Barr’s betrayal came on December 1, over lunch in the attorney general’s private dining room with Michael Balsamo, a Justice Department beat reporter at the Associated Press. Also in attendance were the DOJ chief of staff, Will Levi, and spokesperson Kerri Kupec. Balsamo was not told the reason for the invitation. When Barr dropped his bombshell between bites of salad, he mumbled, and Balsamo wasn’t sure that he had caught what the attorney general had said.

“Just to be crystal clear,” Balsamo asked, “are you saying—”

“Sir, I think you better repeat what you just said,” Kupec interjected.

“To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr repeated. This time Balsamo heard him.

Balsamo’s story appeared on the AP newswire shortly after lunch ended: “Disputing Donald Trump’s persistent baseless claims, Attorney General William Barr declared Tuesday the U.S. Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.”

The story blew a hole in the president’s claims. Nobody seriously questioned Barr’s conservative credentials or whether he had been among Trump’s most loyal cabinet secretaries. His conclusion sent a definitive message that the effort to overturn the election was without merit.
Karl portrays Barr as someone who never believed there was anything about the election that was worth contesting. ("But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.”) In November, Barr's Justice Department launched a probe of alleged election irregularities, in violation of department policy against getting involved in such disputes immediately after an election, but, Karl tells us, Barr was sure all along that the probes would come to nothing.

Today, on CNN's website, Elie Honig, a formal federal prosecutor, reminds us that Barr certainly acted as if election irregularities were a problem before the election.
In a June 2020 interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Barr offered up a familiar-sounding rant about the looming threat of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election. Barr opined 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." But when pressed on whether he had evidence to support this claim, he responded, "No, it's obvious."

And in congressional testimony weeks later, in July 2020, Barr tried and failed again to conjure the demon of massive voter fraud. After he pushed the notion that foreign countries might generate fraudulent mail-in ballots, Democratic representative Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania pushed back, sensibly asking, "But, in fact, you have no evidence that foreign countries can successfully sway our elections with counterfeit ballots, do you?" "No, I don't," Barr conceded, before adding this non sequitur of a rejoinder: "But I have common sense."
In a CNN interview in September 2020, Barr misrepresented a Texas election case -- Barr said investigators had found 1,700 fraudulent ballots when only one such ballot was found.

So Barr was pushing the "fraud" line before Election Day. But why not afterward? I think the answer to this is also the answer to the question "Why did many Republicans at the state and local levels refuse to help Trump steal the election?"

When it comes to manipulating the electoral process in order to try to win more frequently, there appear to be two kinds of Republicans. Some want to win using all possible methods, including crude tactics that don't rely on facts and don't appear plausible except to other right-wing zealots. That's the approach of Trump and the MAGA purists.

The rest of the party -- so far the majority, although this cohort is shrinking rapidly -- also wants to win through electoral manipulation, but wants the manipulation to be concealed effectively. This group wants Republican wins to seem legitimate, even when they aren't.

Pre-2020 Republican electoral manipulation generally fell into the latter category. If you impose ID requirements on (mostly Democratic) voters who have trouble obtaining the required identification, if you close motor vehicle offices so (mostly Democratic) voters can't obtain IDs, if you purge voter rolls in legitimate-seeming ways while actually dropping qualified (Democratic) voters, if you shutter polling places in Democratic strongholds, most Americans won't be paying much attention to the manipulation -- all they'll see is a GOP win once votes are counted. Also, if it's the year 2000 and you never allow it to appear as if Al Gore has a lead in Florida or a plausible path to victory, then his loss looks legitimate, except to Democratic partisans.

Before the election, Barr was eager to create a case for Democratic voter fraud that had a surface plausibility -- but after the election, he knew that Trump's plan was to fight in a way that strained credulity with middle-of-the-road observers. We can see this in one passage from Jonathan Karl's Atlantic piece. It recounts a conversation Barr says he had with Trump shortly after Barr spoke with the AP reporter:
“You know, Mr. President, there are 662 precincts in Wayne County,” Barr said. Trump seemed taken aback that he knew the exact number. “It’s the only county with all the boxes going to a central place, and you actually did better there this time around than you did last time. You keep on saying that the Department of Justice is not looking at this stuff, and we are looking at it in a responsible way. But your people keep on shoveling this shit out.”

... Trump ranted about other examples of fraud....

“You know, you only have five weeks, Mr. President, after an election to make legal challenges,” Barr said. “This would have taken a crackerjack team with a really coherent and disciplined strategy. Instead, you have a clown show. No self-respecting lawyer is going anywhere near it. It’s just a joke. That’s why you are where you are.”
Barr isn't saying, Don't embarrass yourself by claiming fraud where there isn't any, Mr. President. He's saying, Mr. President, if you wanted to claim fraud where there isn't any, you should have had very high-powered lawyers in place and been ready with a much more plausible-sounding line of bullshit.

So Honig is right about Barr's conduct before the election, but Karl's story might not be a total whitewash. Barr might have been genuinely disgusted -- not because Trump was peddling falsehoods, but because he was so obvious about it.

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