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Attorney General William Barr chooses not to speak as President Donald J. Trump participates in a ceremony to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Edwin Meese III in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday, Oct 08, 2019. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

What Did William Barr Know and When Did He Know It?

For two years, Barr developed false narratives that protected then-President Donald Trump from incriminating facts.

Steven Harper

"We live in the age of narrative, not facts," former Attorney General William Barr told NBC News in an interview that aired on March 6, 2022.

He should know. For two years, Barr developed false narratives that protected then-President Donald Trump from incriminating facts, starting with a "distorted" and "misleading" summary of special counsel Robert Mueller's report. Barr diverted the public from Mueller's conclusions that Russia committed crimes to help Trump win the 2016 election, Trump's campaign had embraced the assistance, and Trump himself had obstructed justice during the ensuing investigation.

But now that Trump is at the center of a potential criminal conspiracy to remain in office after losing the election, Barr is promoting his new book and launching a new narrative.

And this time, he's trying to protect himself.

I have a few questions.

Why Did Barr Stop Pushing Trump's Big Lie?

Prior to the election, Barr repeatedly pushed Trump's lie that fraud could infect the outcome. He was still at it on November 9, 2020, when he reversed the Justice Department's longstanding hands-off policy surrounding elections and ordered an investigation into allegations of voting irregularities that, "if true, could potentially impact the outcome a federal election in an individual State."

According to former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen's August 7, 2021 interview with the House committee investigating the January 6 attack, Barr "had been considering it earlier." But for some reason, he decided to announce the policy change two days after every news organization had confirmed Trump's defeat. The head of the Justice Department's Election Crimes Branch resigned from that position in protest.

On the same day and in a seemingly unrelated development, Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and appointed Christopher C. Miller as acting secretary. Immediately, Miller replaced three top department officials and named three Trump loyalists to replace them:

  • New chief of staff to the secretary of defense: Kash Patel, former aide to former Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH).
  • New acting undersecretary of defense for policy: Retired army Gen. Anthony Tata, a pro-Trump Fox News pundit.
  • And, perhaps most significantly, new acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security: Ezra Cohen-Watnick, former assistant to Trump's first national security adviser, confessed felon, and election-conspiracy promoter, Mike Flynn.

Then in a recently revealed mid- to late-November meeting, Trump told Barr that his lawyers said the Justice Department could seize voting machines. Barr rejected the idea. But did he hear that Trump kept exploring the possibility with other federal agencies, including the Defense Department?

Shortly thereafter, Barr abruptly turned on Trump and renounced the Big Lie publicly. On December 1, he told the Associated Press that there was no evidence of voter fraud sufficient to change the election outcome.

Nine days later, Trump signed an executive order revising the Defense Department's line of succession. He moved up his newest departmental loyalists—Tata and Cohen-Watnick—and put them directly behind the deputy secretary and the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. It meant that if Trump issued an order that the Pentagon's top four leaders refused to obey, the resulting departmental massacre would leave friendly faces in their stead.

What Did Barr Know about Trump's Phony Electors?

Trump tried to reverse his defeat in key states by litigating popular vote totals and contacting election officials. Many of those efforts were in plain sight at the time, and all of them failed. But recently we learned that Trump's allies were working secretly on another ploy.

On December 9, Boston attorney Kenneth Chesebro—whom the House's January committee subpoenaed on March 1, 2022—outlined a plan to press ahead with Trump's potential electors in six states that he had lost. Their combined electoral votes would swing the Electoral College outcome to Trump.

In accordance with the U.S. Constitution and federal law, the Electoral College voted on December 14 in state capitals throughout the country. Previously chosen electors for each state's winning candidate cast their ballots accordingly and transmitted them to federal officials, including the National Archives.

But in seven states that Biden won—the six states in Chesebro's memo plus New Mexico—Trump's potential electors pretended that Trump had won. They signed phony voting certificates that are now the subject of criminal investigations. Identically prepared as to font and format, the certificates falsely declared Trump the official winner in those states. One of Trump's illegitimate electors from Michigan later said that the request for the false certificates had come from the Trump campaign.

What Did Barr Know about the Defense Department's Involvement?

December 14 was an eventful day:

  • The Electoral College voted to confirm Biden's victory.
  • Barr resigned effective December 23.
  • Trump named Jeffrey Rosen as acting Attorney General.
  • And Trump's White House assistant sent Rosen an email ("From: POTUS") that pushed repeatedly debunked claims about voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan.

The following day, Rosen and others met in the Oval Office and told Trump that the Antrim County claims were false. Immediately afterward, Rosen briefed Barr on the session.

"Thanks for the update," Barr responded.

A recently revealed draft executive order dated December 16, 2020, ties together various election-subversion strands. Based on the lies about Antrim County, the order empowered the newly reworked Defense Department to seize voting machines, federalize the National Guard, and prepare an assessment of the situation within 60 days—nearly a month past the January 20 Inauguration Day set forth in the Constitution. The order also appointed a special counsel to investigate voter fraud.

On December 17, Secretary Miller ordered a cessation of transition team meetings between the Defense Department and President-elect Biden's team.

On December 18, an aide to Trump adviser Peter Navarro escorted Mike Flynn and attorney Sidney Powell into the Oval Office where they urged Trump to sign the draft executive order. Other advisers, including Rudy Giuliani, pushed back. So Trump told Giuliani to ask acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II if his agency could seize voting machines. Cuccinelli said no.

Still, early on December 21, Navarro appeared on Fox News, proposing that the federal government "seize a lot of those voting machines" and appoint a special counsel before Inauguration Day to investigate. Shortly thereafter, Barr responded to a reporter's question, saying that he saw no basis for either step.

On December 23, Barr left office.

Less than three weeks later, a remarkable bipartisan op-ed appeared in the Washington Post. Evidently inspired by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had served as secretary of defense for President George H.W. Bush when Barr was attorney general the first time, it issued a stark warning from all 10 living former secretaries of defense to leaders of the armed forces:

"Each of us swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We did not swear it to an individual or a party…

"Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic."

The following day, Trump moved forcefully in a different direction. Along with Chapman University law professor John Eastman, he urged Pence to proceed with the final phase of the phony-electors plot. They wanted Pence to use the false certifications as a pretext to ignore the electoral votes that Biden had won in those seven states.

On the morning of January 6, Pence rejected the plan. The insurrection followed.

William Barr was the nation's top law enforcement officer—twice. He too had sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution. We now know that after the election and before Barr left office, nefarious plots to undermine democracy swirled throughout the Trump administration. He quashed at least one himself.

What did Barr know and when did he know it?

Before he answers, put him under oath.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He has been a regular columnist for Moyers on Democracy, Dan Rather’s News & Guts, and The American Lawyer.

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