But it is a mark of the extreme choices Trump forces upon those who served him that the ultraconservative career lawyer now finds himself on the same side as his liberal onetime accusers in defending America’s democracy.
His gruff bluntness is not just dismembering the ex-President’s fantastical claims that he won the 2020 election. It’s also hacking away at the entire false premise of Trump’s nascent 2024 campaign: that he was cheated out of power and deserves to get his job back.
And Trump has amended his assessment delivered after Barr tormented Democrats in a fiery hearing in May 2019: “He’s an outstanding man. He’s an outstanding legal mind.”
In a post on his inaptly named Truth Social network on Monday, the ex-President claimed Barr lacked the “courage or stamina to go after voter fraud.” As Barr testified to the committee, there was never any evidence of significant fraud.
Trump was ‘detached from reality’
Barr’s second tenure as attorney general — reprising a role he once served for that most conventional of Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush — risked going down in history as that of an enabler of an often-lawless inhabitant of the Oval Office. That perhaps hints at his motivation, at the end of a long Washington career, for trashing Trump’s fraud fantasies under oath to the committee — and apparent relish in doing so.
He has quickly emerged as the most critical witness in televised hearings as the panel makes a case that Trump knew his election lies were false but used them to incite an unprecedented coup to try to stay in power.
Like several other former members of the Trump orbit, Barr seemed to be trying to entrench his role for posterity as part of “Team Normal,” as ex-campaign manager Bill Stepien put it in his own recorded testimony. Barr told how he had decided to leave his post early after Trump stopped listening to sense in his final days in office.
“I thought, ‘Boy, if he really believes this stuff, he has lost contact with — he’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,’ ” he testified.
Watching Barr testify behind closed doors, the committee staff must have believed they hit the jackpot in their attempt to lay the blame for the insurrection squarely in the hands of the former President.
That’s because Barr’s frequent role as a shill for an unrestrained President now makes him all the more credible as a witness who can deal a damning blow to Trump. It’s unclear, of course, whether his testimony will have much political impact, especially after he stood by Trump and his questioning of the election system for so long. Millions of Trump supporters long ago accepted the former President’s lies about election fraud, and conservative media and the House GOP have set about discrediting the committee hearings. But a figure as conservative and formerly loyal to Trump as Barr may have at least some resonance among those who liked Trump’s policies but abhorred his behavior.
Democrats once accused Barr of lying to Congress
For months after he took office in February 2019, Barr tarnished his image in Washington as a conservative straight shooter who could be trusted to defend Washington institutions against Trump. The clues to his changed persona were in the path to his return to the Justice Department.
Furious Democrats confronted Barr in that May 2019 hearing over his handling of Mueller’s work. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, for instance, called on him to resign. “You lied. And now we know,” she said. “Being attorney general of the United States is a sacred trust. You have betrayed that trust.”
Barr’s shielding of the then-President created the impression that he might end up being the kind of loyal factotum that Trump had craved in his first FBI director, James Comey, and first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, both of whom he fired for resisting his attempts to shut down the Mueller probe.
Even shortly before the 2020 election, Barr had appeared to amplify Trump’s warnings that election fraud was a real danger by telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he was worried that a foreign country could send thousands of fake ballots into the election system.
But there were also signs that working for Trump was driving Barr to distraction. In February 2020, he complained that the then-President’s tweets made it “impossible” for him to do his job and harmed the image of the Justice Department.
When Barr turned against Trump
In his testimony aired Monday, Barr complained about “idiotic” allegations that Dominion voting machines had been tampered with and he slammed the latest conservative conspiracy theories contained in the documentary “2000 Mules,” which Trump has again falsely claimed shows evidence of fraud.
Loyalist no more, Barr now find himself as the pivot of the House select committee’s investigation, and his graphic depictions of the ex-President’s denialism and wild state of mind are damaging Trump’s reputation.
Much of Barr’s testimony was woven into a case exposing how Trump had known that his election claims were false but pushed them anyway, made by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren in a forensic presentation before the committee on Monday.
But back in May 2019, the California Democrat had had a harsher take on Barr after voting in the House Judiciary Committee to hold him in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena for a full and unredacted version of the Mueller report.
“He is abdicating his responsibility to the law and inhibiting Congress’ ability to perform our constitutional duties. This obstruction must have consequences,” Lofgren said at the time.
That she is now using Barr’s testimony as Congress yet again tries to hold Trump to account shows just how far Trump’s anti-democratic behavior has turned Washington on its head, with some of his onetime loyalists becoming powerful foes.