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Bill Barr wants his legacy to be his mumbled opposition to Trump on fraud, not his shouted agreement

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/28/2021 Philip Bump
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr arrive to participate in a Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor presentation ceremony in the East Room at the White House on May 22, 2019 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post President Donald Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr arrive to participate in a Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor presentation ceremony in the East Room at the White House on May 22, 2019 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The first time that Donald Trump blamed voter fraud for his failure to get more votes than his opponent was on Nov. 27 … of 2016. Two weeks after his presidential win over Hillary Clinton had been confirmed, his anguish over having lost the popular vote was manifested in a claim on Twitter that there had been “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California.”

Then, as now, there was no evidence of fraud, but nevertheless he persisted. He hyped random, obviously noncredible allegations and, after being inaugurated, leveraged the presidency to try to bolster his rhetoric. The White House task force focused on fraud soon collapsed both because of its sweeping demands for voter data and for the same reason that a concentrated effort to capture the Loch Ness monster might not last long: There’s not a lot to work with.

What is important about this bit of history is that, over the 14 months between his election loss and the abandonment of his fraud commission, no member of his own party challenged Trump in any significant way on his claims. This was in keeping with how Trump had been handled since late 2015: The fervor of his base and his own penchant for throwing mud disinclined Republicans to push back on the obviously false or dangerous things Trump was saying, with Republicans generally preferring to either try to quietly undermine Trump or simply wait him out. This is a central story of the Trump era, that his putative allies were almost never interested in challenging him and his dishonesty. And on voter fraud, that pattern began before he was even president.

Trump alleged fraud in the Iowa caucuses in 2016, without repercussion. He alleged fraud after the 2016 election, with his party humoring him. He alleged fraud in Florida in 2018, echoing false and inflated claims made by Gov. Rick Scott (R). On that occasion, he was asked to curtail his rhetoric by incoming governor Ron DeSantis (R). But that, according to the New York Times, was only done quietly and “through intermediaries.” (That article also reports that “Mr. DeSantis, 40, is intent on turning down the temperature in perpetually overheated Florida,” which does not seem to be the approach that DeSantis has since employed.)

In each case, the allegations were probably ignored in part because they weren’t considered particularly consequential. The caucuses were one contest of many; he’d already won 2016; he and his base were ancillary to the 2018 results. But then 2020 loomed, and Trump began claiming that rampant fraud was likely, early and often.

By April, two things had happened: Joe Biden had become the presumptive Democratic nominee, consistently leading Trump in national polls, and the coronavirus pandemic had prompted states to expand the ability to vote by mail. Although Trump had repeatedly argued that in-person voter fraud was rampant — without pushback — he shifted his focus to absentee ballots during 2020. Instead of pushing back on Trump’s claims, his team bolstered and reinforced the idea that mail-in ballots were somehow suspect. The Florida Republican Party, eager to encourage its voters to cast early ballots, sent out a mailer that redacted part of a Trump tweet to suggest that he actually supported mail-in voting — about as robust a rebuke of Trump’s claims as his party made.

Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, played his part ably. Barr, unlike many in Trump’s orbit, was not tightly bound to Trump’s politics and had his own record on which he could stand, having served in the same position under George H.W. Bush. Yet when Trump last year was insisting that rampant fraud was likely because of an increase in mail ballots, Barr chose neither to contradict his boss nor to remain silent.

“There’s so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed,” Barr said in an interview with NPR. “I think it would be very bad. But one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting” of ballots.

Asked whether he had evidence that ballots might be counterfeited, Barr insisted that it was “obvious” that it could happen. (It is not.) NPR’s public editor later chastised the station for allowing Barr to make such claims. But Barr wasn’t deterred. He made similar claims on CNN in early September.

The ramifications of playing along with Trump were obvious. His base was being told that the polls showing Trump trailing Biden were wrong and that the only way he would lose would be if rampant fraud occurred. No one who had credibility with Trump’s base was willing to challenge that narrative, perhaps out of a justified fear that doing so would probably erode that credibility. As had been the case since 2015, everyone just hoped it would go away.

Then Trump lost. Trump’s fraud claims became more frenzied. Senior Republican officials such as then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to force Trump to acknowledge the reality of his position for more than a month. The guiding tactic appears to have been one articulated by an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate private matters to The Washington Post on Nov. 9.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” the official said. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

That aged poorly.

On Sunday, the Atlantic published an excerpt from ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl’s upcoming book about the end of the Trump administration. In it, Barr describes his decision in mid-December to tell the Associated Press that no evidence of fraud existed — a declaration that was mumbled through a bite of salad, in Karl’s telling.

We learn about aftermath of Barr’s assertion — an explosion of outrage from Trump, as one would expect, but no actual retribution for Barr. More interesting, though, is that we also learn that the impetus was, in part, McConnell’s desire to have someone in a position of authority assert what McConnell himself wouldn’t: that nothing untoward happened.

McConnell “believed that if he openly declared Biden the winner, Trump would be enraged and likely act to sabotage the Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia,” Karl writes, which is precisely the sort of contrived calculus that undergirded every decision by every Republican to give Trump a pass from 2015 to 2021. Doing the hard, right thing would lead to some sort of blowback that made it less palatable than doing the easy, wrong, frictionless thing. So the easy thing, doing nothing, kept being done.

Often this choice has been framed by those close to Trump as being a function of picking one’s battles. Because Trump could be expected to react with fury about being confronted and, on rare occasion (ironically, given Trump’s “you’re fired” shtick) those confronting him might be fired, the rationalization for doing the easy thing was that it let you push back against other things quietly. And there are times when this clearly did happen.

But what also happened is that many of those people ended up being fired or quitting anyway, with Trump casting some as traitors. By the end, by Jan. 6, Trump’s White House had eroded to its most loyal core, a withered and weakened group that still managed to leverage Trump’s appeal to his base to get numerous members of Congress to try to block the finalization of the election results.

Much of what drives politicians to action is political cover. Elected leaders want to be able to point to something as the rationale for their actions — massive public support or the overwhelming agreement of their caucus, for example. For Republicans in early January, though, there was no real political cover for opposing Trump on fraud. McConnell pushed Barr out of the airplane and watched him glide down toward the wolves; which member of the House was going to want to make that same jump? Had a critical mass of Republicans been standing in opposition to Trump’s claims, there would have been political will to go in a different direction. But there wasn’t.

The moral of Barr’s face-saving interview with Karl isn’t that he did his best, it’s that he didn’t. The moral is that neither he nor other voices of authority leveraged their power when it would have made a difference and that when they acted, it was literally both too little and too late. The GOP let Trump make false and ridiculous claims about fraud for five years. A statement in early December acknowledging that no credible fraud claims existed isn’t nothing, but it’s also not much of anything. Barr stoked Trump’s fire in June and then set out a sprinkler after it was already out of containment.

On Saturday, the day before Karl’s excerpt was published, Trump appeared at a rally in Ohio. There, he offered the latest iteration of his fraud claims before a cheering crowd, claims that a third of the country erroneously accepts as accurate — as many Americans now as in November, before Barr even spoke out. Trump repeated the same claims in a statement bashing Barr that was released Sunday evening. The response from Republican leaders remains the same: If we just stay quiet, maybe all of this will resolve itself.

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