Jurisprudence

What’s Funny About Trump’s Plan to Overturn the Election? Ask Bill Barr.

Former Attorney General William Barr is seen on a screen during Monday's Jan. 6 committee hearing.
Former Attorney General William Barr is seen on a screen during Monday’s Jan. 6 committee hearing. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Former Attorney General Bill Barr was having a rollicking good time in his taped deposition that was played before the Jan. 6 committee. He used words like “rubbish” and “nonsense” and “bullshit” and “garbage” and “crazy” and “annoying” and “idiotic” and “stupid” to describe, frequently with a wide smile, how fundamentally silly Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election being stolen really were. Indeed, in clips of his testimony played during the committee’s second hearing on Monday, Barr essentially told us that he departed his post as the AG, because at some point he realized that the former president could no longer be reasoned with.

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“I felt that before the election,” Barr said, “it was possible to talk sense to the president. And while you sometimes had to engage in, you know, a big wrestling match with him, that it was possible to keep things on track. But I was—felt that after the election he didn’t seem to be listening. And I didn’t think it was—you know, that I was inclined not to stay around if he wasn’t listening to advice from me or the Cabinet secretaries.”

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It’s so strange because what Barr was describing is neither “silly” nor “bullshit” nor “nonsense.” He is instead describing a claim about election fraud that was being weaponized to thwart the orderly transfer of power. Barr waited to let us all know in part because this was all a bit of a joke, until after he was subpoenaed to testify before the committee.

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Recall that just a few weeks ago the same Bill Barr who felt that the former president couldn’t be reasoned with about, like, reality, said that he would vote for Trump again in 2024. Recall that the September before the 2020 election it was Bill Barr who took to CNN to make discredited and materially false claims about the connection between mail-in ballots and stolen elections. And recall also that the same Barr who says that he couldn’t get the president to “listen to advice” from any of his Cabinet secretaries resigned with a letter referencing “election integrity” without letting anyone know about what was either an existential threat to democracy or a 25th Amendment–worthy cognitive crisis in a sitting president (“ detached from reality,” said Barr of Trump).

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Forced to choose between dereliction of duty because the president was delusional, or dereliction of duty because the president was a criminal, Barr appears to have picked door No. 3: The president was a laugh riot.

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Maybe Barr was just saving it all for his book, as one does. Or maybe his attempts to suggest that the fact that the former president was refusing to take advice from anyone who knew anything was hilarious is a way to implicate a handful of bad actors—Rudy Giuliani chief among them—while still pursuing a larger GOP project of voter suppression, election subversion, and false claims of voter fraud as justifications for doing more of the same in future elections.

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[Read: The Jan. 6 Hearing’s Most Compelling Witness So Far]

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How do you manage to skate the thin line between being complicit in the wrongdoing of the 2020 election claims and holding yourself out as a heroic whistleblower? How do you manage to discredit every single claim of election fraud that was advanced by the Trump campaign, but still stake your reputation on the ongoing problem of election fraud that is right now being used in at least 19 states to restrict access to the ballot? You do it by making light of the president, of Giuliani, and of the crackpot ideas they advance. You do so by casting it all as silly, as opposed to evil. And you do so by presenting yourself as the sophisticated elder statesman instead of the guy who slunk away when his country needed him.

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Perhaps the greatest lesson of the second day of Jan. 6 hearings is this line between what is deemed serious and silly, and which of the exclusively GOP witnesses is willing to draw it where. As former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien characterized it, after the election, the president’s advisers sorted into “Team Normal,” and Team Rudy Giuliani. The maraschino cherry on top, of course, was former senior adviser to the 2020 Trump campaign Jason Miller’s testimony that Giuliani was drunk on the night he sought to advise the president to declare victory.

Drunk, foolish, and detached from reality. Some of the key witnesses at the second hearing cast maintaining our Democracy as a buddy movie in the manner of The Hangover. Mistakes were made. Hilarity ensues.

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[Read: Jan. 6 Committee Stresses That Rudy Giuliani Seemed Real Drunk on Election Night]

Maybe the most arresting characterization of where the line between seriousness and silliness actually rests came from the live testimony of Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican. Asked what happened after Donald Trump had attacked him on Twitter on Nov. 11, 2020, calling him a “RINO,” or a “Republican in name only,” for failing to find evidence of voter fraud in Philadelphia and refusing “to look at a mountain of corruption & dishonesty. We win!” Schmidt answered by explaining that, “on some level it feels almost silly to talk about a tweet.” But of course it isn’t silly to talk about tweets because Trump benefited from the presumption of silliness for four years and continues to do so. Before the tweet naming him, Schmidt explained, “the threats were pretty general in nature … ‘Corrupt election officials in Philadelphia are going to get what’s coming to them’; ‘You’re what the Second Amendment is for’; ‘You’re walking into the lion’s den.’ ”

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Those, to be clear, were the benign threats. After the president singled him out for failing to find voter fraud, it became less trivial. As Schmidt put it:

After the president tweeted at me by name, calling me out the way that he did, the threats became much more specific, much more graphic. … They included not just me by name, but included members of my family by name, their ages, our address, pictures of our home, just every bit of detail that you can imagine.

Part of the reason Monday’s testimony was so incredibly damning was that it came from fellow Republicans making the case that Trump knew the election hadn’t been stolen, that he started making those false claims well in advance of the election (indeed he made them before the 2016 contest), and that he was grifting off the claims. But just as Ginni Thomas’ alleged goofiness and artlessness doesn’t exculpate her for her efforts to subvert the presidential election, claims from people like Barr that this was all the result of some madcappery and hijinks distracts from the fact that it was also the result of Bill Barr, and others like him, who were deadly serious about implementing Trump’s worst ideas up until the minute they were not.

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Sometimes, when these guys try to defend themselves, the cruelty stops being the point precisely when the comedy becomes the point. Buried under Barr’s claims that everything that happened in the days after the November election was “crazy” is the fact that had these claims about election fraud been soberly implemented by “serious people” they would have been successful, and that if these “serious people” keep making it harder to vote because of imaginary election fraud, they will succeed next time. Words like “bullshit” and “crazy” are the tell: They are code for both “I had no responsibility to do anything at all” and “I’m here next time for the serious version of the same thing.”

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