Two days before he leaves the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr offered his sharpest rebuke to date of President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations surrounding the election result, rejecting Trump’s efforts to act on the conspiracy theories the President has embraced to explain his loss to President-elect Joe Biden.
Barr rejected the call for a special counsel to investigate claims of election fraud, while adding he saw “no basis” for the federal government to seize voting machines, a legally dubious step some of Trump’s allies have proposed in recent days.
The attorney general also rejected appointing a special counsel to investigate allegations against Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, which are currently being probed by federal prosecutors and IRS investigators. And Barr contradicted Trump’s disputing that Russia was likely the culprit in a massive cyber breach of US government systems, saying “it certainly appears to be the Russians.”
At the news conference held to announce new charges in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Barr put down a marker that could give his soon-to-be-acting successor, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, some political cover should Trump try to pressure Rosen or others at the Justice Department.
While Trump has been making false claims about the election for more than a month now, he appeared to take the effort a step further last week, hosting a meeting with lawyer Sidney Powell and her client, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had suggested Trump could invoke martial law. The meeting included a discussion of appointing Powell as a special counsel to investigate election fraud and an executive order to allow the federal government to inspect voting machines. Powell and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani returned to the White House on Monday afternoon.
Barr’s resignation, announced last week, was negotiated with Trump after the attorney general came under fire for saying there did not appear to be widespread fraud in the November election. Barr was attacked by Trump’s allies for pushing back on the baseless allegations surrounding the election that have been raised by Trump’s campaign and his allies and rejected over and over again in the courts.
It’s a remarkable position for Barr to be in after he was one of Trump’s most ardent defenders in the Cabinet, helping to push back against the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller and appointing a US attorney to investigate the origins of the FBI probe into Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Monday, Barr appeared to reject Trump’s efforts to break norms surrounding the election result. But he declined to engage on another norm Trump is flirting with challenging in his final days, declining to answer a question on whether Trump had the right to pardon himself.
Here’s where Barr publicly distanced himself from the President:
After the election, the Justice Department announced it would investigate allegations of election fraud, but in a December 1 interview with the Associated Press, Barr pushed back on Trump’s baseless claims the election was stolen from him. “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr said.
As the courts have rejected allegations of widespread fraud, Trump’s backers have pushed for a special counsel to keep probing the election, including the suggestion of naming Powell, who has focused her conspiracy theories on voting machines.
Barr said at Monday’s presser that there was “fraud, unfortunately, in most elections. I think we’re too tolerant of it.” But he said he stood by the finding that there was no systemic or broad-based fraud, which Trump refuses to admit.
“If I thought a special counsel at this stage was a right tool and was appropriate, I would name one, but I haven’t and I’m not going to,” Barr said.
Barr also rejected the notion that the US government should consider examining voting machines, which stems from a baseless conspiracy theory offered by Powell and Giuliani.
Giuliani had called Ken Cuccinelli, the senior official at the Department of Homeland Security performing the duties of the DHS deputy secretary, to ask if it was possible for DHS to seize voting machines, but Cuccinelli told him it wasn’t within DHS’ authority, CNN reported on Saturday.
Barr was clear in his position Monday.
“I see no basis for seizure of machines by the federal government,” he said.
The news this month that Hunter Biden was under federal investigation — and the steps the Justice Department took before the election to follow proper protocol and not disclose the probe before the election — was one of the key factors that raised Trump’s ire toward Barr and led to his planned resignation.
“Why didn’t Bill Barr reveal the truth to the public, before the Election, about Hunter Biden,” Trump tweeted two days before he tweeted Barr’s resignation letter.
Since then, Trump has pushed for a special counsel to investigate the allegations against Hunter Biden, a question that could fall to Rosen, who is set to fill the top Justice Department job for the final month of Trump’s presidency and, potentially, until the Senate confirms Biden’s attorney general nominee.
Federal prosecutors in Delaware and IRS investigators are conducting the probe, which is focused on Hunter Biden’s financial dealings. He has not been charged with any crime, and his father is not implicated.
“To the extent there’s an investigation, I think it’s being handled responsibly and professionally currently within the department, and to this point, I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel, and I have no plan to do so before I leave,” Barr said when asked about Hunter Biden.
Asked about the concern over what happens to the probe in the next administration, Barr said he was hopeful there wouldn’t be political interference. “I’m hoping the next administration handles that matter responsibly,” he said.
Trump contradicted his own officials, Republican and Democratic members of Congress and cybersecurity experts on Saturday when he publicly raised doubts on Twitter about whether Russia was responsible for the massive cyberattack on US federal government agencies.
Trump’s tweet, in which the President downplayed the significance of the hacking and suggested China could have been responsible instead, is only the latest instance where Trump has avoided condemning Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, however, Barr did not follow Trump’s lead, instead pointing to the comments last week from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had said Friday, “We can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
“I agree with Secretary Pompeo’s assessment. It certainly appears to be the Russians, but I’m not going to discuss it beyond that,” Barr said.
The US has not yet formally attributed the hack to Russia, but US officials and lawmakers say there’s little doubt about who was behind the attack.
White House officials had drafted a statement assigning blame to Russia for the attack and were preparing to release it Friday afternoon but were told to stand down, CNN reported on Saturday.