Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Opinion | Republicans should listen to Bill Barr

Opinion | Republicans should listen to Bill Barr

Former attorney general William P. Barr could not influence special counsel Jack Smith or Attorney General Merrick Garland in their decision to indict former president Donald Trump. By the time a jury is selected, most jurors (if they had even heard Barr’s remarks) will have forgotten the reaction in the first few days after the indictment. But with the indictment now released — making public the damning series of charges — Barr can play a vital role in helping Republicans accept that their front-runner for the 2024 presidential nomination faces the likelihood of trial and conviction — developments that cannot be wished away.

Since he left the Trump administration, Barr has been candid about Trump’s shortcomings. Barr provided testimony to the Jan. 6, 2021, House select committee, saying he told Trump there was no evidence of election fraud. He told the committee, “Right out of the box on election night, the president claimed that there was major fraud underway. I mean, this [claim of fraud] happened, as far as I could tell, before there was actually any potential of looking at evidence.”

More recently, he’s been open about Trump’s unfitness for office. “He does not have the discipline. He does not have the ability for strategic thinking and linear thinking — or setting priorities or how to get things done in the system,” Barr told a Cleveland group in early May. “It’s a horror show, you know, when he’s left to his own devices.”

With regard to the case stemming from Trump’s retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, Barr has been a lonely Republican voice warning that the charges are serious. He said on ABC’s “This Week” on April 9, “I think that’s a serious potential case. I think they probably have some very good evidence there.” In May, he told CBS News, “It’s very clear that he had no business having those documents.” He explained, “He was given a long time to send them back. And they were subpoenaed. And I’ve said all along that he wouldn’t get in trouble, probably, just for taking them, just as [President] Biden I don’t think is going to get in trouble or [former vice president Mike] Pence is not going to get in trouble.” Barr added, “The problem is what did he do after the government asked for them back and subpoenaed them. And if there’s any games being played there, he’s going to be very exposed.”

This past week on CBS, he declared, “This is not a case of the Department of Justice conducting a witch hunt. … This would have gone nowhere had the president just returned the documents, but he jerked them around for a year and a half. … There is no excuse for what he did here.” He went on at length about Trump’s mindset:

Never-Trump Republican Bill Kristol told me, “Bill Barr served Trump, distorted the Mueller report for Trump, defended the indefensible for Trump. But even he acknowledges the classified documents is a crime too far.”

Why should any of this matter? As Trump’s former attorney general, Barr’s willingness to speak out tells Republicans still capable of reason that the case is real, it’s serious, it cannot be brushed off and that the Justice Department didn’t engage in misconduct. Barr could break through the right-wing media bubble that shelters millions of Republicans from reality. They have convinced themselves that Trump is innocent and/or that this will all go away. Even after word of the indictment spread, Republican politicians continued to attack the Justice Department as if it, not Trump, were on trial. Barr is there to shake them by the lapels, effectively telling them, “No, he’s in big trouble because he did something very, very wrong.”

Barr is not alone in calling out Trump’s conduct. After the indictment was unsealed, Trump’s former counsel Ty Cobb told CNN, “I think Trump is in an enormous amount of trouble. This indictment is about as carefully structured and evidentially supported as any indictment in history.” Law professor Jonathan Turley, who frequently defended Trump’s behavior during his impeachments, wrote, “For two years, I have said that the Mar-a-Lago charges — particularly obstruction — represent the greatest threat to Donald Trump. It remains baffling why Trump forced this issue over these documents rather than just give them all back.” And yet Barr remains the best-known lawyer for many Americans. As a former attorney general, his words carry additional weight.

Perhaps, now that the indictment has moved from theoretical to actual, Republicans will come to their senses. And Barr might be just the person to help that process along. Never-Trump strategist Sarah Longwell told me, “Bill Barr being vocal about the seriousness of the documents case will make it harder for many Republicans to casually dismiss this indictment as they did with the [Manhattan district attorney Alvin] Bragg indictment.”

Perhaps this will be too little too late to stop Trump’s 2024 candidacy. However, donors, establishment Republicans and ordinary voters might listen to Barr even though they would not pay attention to the mainstream media or even former GOP New Jersey governor Chris Christie. (On Friday, Christie slammed Trump: “The facts that are laid out here are damning in terms of Donald Trump’s conduct. … Do we really believe that someone who engaged in this type of conduct is going to be the best person to put up against Joe Biden?”)

Meanwhile, Barr will be a critical factor in creating a permission structure in which Republicans need not concede that their past support for Trump was “wrong.” Barr could convince a significant number of former Trump voters that the documents case is so serious that reelecting Trump would be dangerous — either because he could be convicted before taking office or because his actions, even if not illegal, were reckless.

Barr’s statements might help “soft Republicans,” independents and those who believe that electing Trump will “solve” his legal dilemma to finally reject Trump. They can tell themselves, “I was right to vote for him before. I was right that he was a good president. But now he’s done something really wrong.

In the short term, Barr’s remarks might encourage other Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to reject Trump’s cries of persecution. Republicans’ awareness of Trump’s unfitness (or at least his unelectability) could then swell. If so, Barr would have done something — finally! — in defense of our democracy and the rule of law.

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