Despite election lies, sympathy between Barr and Trump remains Former Attorney General William Barr spoke with NPR about his new memoir, former President Trump's election lies and why he thinks Trump shouldn't try to return to the White House.

Bill Barr won't back a 2024 Trump run but doesn't quite condemn his former boss

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former Attorney General William Barr says people have the wrong idea of his service under former President Trump.

WILLIAM BARR: The media chose to weave a narrative that I was a toady to the president, and that was false from the beginning because I felt I could be independent, and I was.

INSKEEP: Barr tells his version of events in a memoir titled "One Damn Thing After Another." That's how one of his predecessors described the attorney general's job. Barr says he refuted Trump's claims about a stolen election. He also defends decisions he made in favor of the president or his allies, and he talks of working for a leader constantly distracted by shiny objects.

You even tell a story about Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state at the time, who took advantage of that. What did he do?

BARR: Well, we had this running joke that whenever the president was chewing out Mike about something, all Mike had to do was mention Russiagate or something like that, and the president would take it and run for quite a while.

INSKEEP: He'd rant and forget what he was angry at Mike Pompeo about.

BARR: Yeah, and by the end of the conversation - yeah, he wouldn't remember what he was angry at Pompeo about. But, you know, at one point, I said to the president, you know, Mr. President, you're like a bull in a bull ring and your adversaries have your number. They know how to get under your skin, and all they have to do is wave a red flag over here and you go charging and attack it. And I said, at the end of the day, you're going to be in the middle of the ring sweating, and someone's going to come and put a sword through your head. And he didn't think much of that metaphor (laughter).

INSKEEP: Barr told us this when we visited his home outside Washington. His home library features books on American presidents and also a Tommy Gun, an old-fashioned automatic weapon received as a gift from the FBI. The two-time attorney general grew up in a conservative family in liberal New York City. In the radical 1960s, he was a conservative college student. And when left-wing protesters took over the Columbia University Library, Barr joined the counterprotesters. His memoir dwells on modern-day culture wars, accusing progressives of dividing the country, which makes it easier to understand why he said yes when Trump nominated him in December 2018.

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DONALD TRUMP: A terrific man, a terrific person, a brilliant man. I did not know him for - until recently when I went through the process of looking at people, and he was my first choice from day one.

INSKEEP: Barr took the job amid an investigation. Special counsel Robert Mueller was probing Russia's participation in the 2016 election. Mueller's report documented contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. But Mueller did not find an illegal conspiracy and declined to say if Trump did or did not commit the crime of obstructing justice. Barr was unimpressed and sent Congress his own conclusion that the evidence did not show obstruction. Mueller later wrote Barr failed to capture the substance of his report and created confusion.

And you give a couple of details of Robert Mueller. You talk about his hands shaking and his voice quavering and something seeming a little off. Would you tell me flatly what you intended to suggest by including those details?

BARR: What I - was that there was something wrong with him, I thought. I thought that he had a health problem.

INSKEEP: Did you ask him?

BARR: No.

INSKEEP: Have you since?

BARR: No.

INSKEEP: Have you spoken with him since his report came out?

BARR: No.

INSKEEP: He was a friend of yours for many years, wasn't he?

BARR: Yes. But I haven't spoken to him.

INSKEEP: Is that just by chance?

BARR: It hasn't been calculated. I just haven't had the opportunity to speak to him.

INSKEEP: What would you tell him now?

BARR: I wouldn't tell him anything. He tried to do his job. I tried to do my job.

INSKEEP: Barr also says he was doing his job when he dropped charges against Trump's former national security adviser.

BARR: The times I intervened in a case that was politically charged, it was to do the right thing. It was to stop an abuse. The...

INSKEEP: Do you mean like dismissing the charges against Mike Flynn?

BARR: Yeah, that was an abuse. That was an abuse.

INSKEEP: Why was it an abuse? He lied to the FBI.

BARR: Well, it's - you know, he pled that he lied to the FBI.

INSKEEP: He admitted it. Yes.

BARR: As part of a plea deal, which was one of the reasons I was reluctant to get involved in it.

INSKEEP: But he contends the FBI did not have a good reason to question Flynn in the first place. He says he opposes criminalizing politics, turning disagreements into investigations.

BARR: People will never see this stuff, but I said that certain things should not be pursued as investigations because I didn't feel they were adequately predicated where the Democrats would have been on the receiving end.

INSKEEP: Would you say as a matter of flat fact that you kicked away allegations that would have been embarrassing to Democrats because the standards were not met?

BARR: Yes.

INSKEEP: Trump's Justice Department did investigate Democrats, including Joe Biden's son, Hunter. But Barr notes the department kept that probe secret until after the 2020 election. There was a moment when Barr's own name came up during an investigation. It was an inquiry into a phone call.

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TRUMP: It was a perfect conversation. It was - it couldn't have been any better.

INSKEEP: Trump's 2019 call to the president of Ukraine sought political dirt for Trump's reelection. It prompted House Democrats like Adam Schiff to push for Trump's first impeachment.

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ADAM SCHIFF: This would be, I think, the most profound violation of the presidential oath of office, certainly during this presidency, which says a lot, but perhaps during just about any presidency.

INSKEEP: In that call, Ukraine's president appealed for javelin missiles, weapons Ukraine could use against invading Russian tanks and which Ukrainians desperately need today. Trump's next words were, quote, "I would like you to do us a favor, though." He urged Ukraine's president to get in touch with his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his attorney general, William Barr. To this day, Barr insists he had nothing to do with this.

BARR: It was an absurd idea, and it was pursued in a farcical way. But at the time, I didn't think it was criminal, and I still don't think it was criminal.

INSKEEP: Barr remained broadly supportive of the president right up until Trump tried to overturn his election defeat in 2020.

BARR: After the election, he didn't seem to listen to anybody except a group of sycophants who were telling him what was - what he wanted to hear.

INSKEEP: We're talking about Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell...

BARR: People like that.

INSKEEP: ...The pillow guy.

BARR: Yeah, a lot of people on the outside and some people on the inside.

INSKEEP: Trump said publicly the attorney general isn't looking into this. He doesn't want to find the facts. You make it clear in the book you went looking, you looked at the allegations.

BARR: Right. You know, most of the allegations were not really alleging fraud. All the stuff - it was like playing whack-a-mole. All the theories of the day that came out, when we looked into them, they just evaporated. They were just completely without foundation. I mean, take - you know, recently, you interviewed the president.

INSKEEP: Mmm hmm.

BARR: And, you know, he's had a year to think about it. And the evidence he came forward, that the election was stolen, was the statement that more people voted in Philadelphia than there were voters.

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TRUMP: Look at Philadelphia. Is it true that there were far more votes than there were voters?

INSKEEP: It is not true that there were far...

TRUMP: Gee, that's a pretty tough thing to...

INSKEEP: It is not true.

TRUMP: That's a pretty tough problem.

BARR: That's completely false. I mean, it's demonstrably false. And yet you continue to hear this thing repeated.

INSKEEP: Weeks after the election, Barr told a reporter that the Justice Department had found no evidence of widespread fraud. According to Barr's memoir, this so infuriated the president that he summoned Barr to the Oval Office, and Barr said to his face that the election claims were BS. But it would be a mistake to say that Barr entirely breaks from Trump in this memoir. Even today, Barr does not apologize for raising concerns about ballot security, and he argues that radical leftists are the ones who want to tear down traditional American institutions.

BARR: You know, they're playing to win today as if there's no tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Can you speak to the other side in this argument, people who look at the Republican Party and see a lot of officeholders and media figures who seem to want to tear everything down, who seem to have no interest in the institutions that you feel are important?

BARR: I mean, I think it's just the opposite. I think conservatism, by definition, is preserving our institutions. And to me, the essence of conservatism is to say, No. 1, how does this work if the shoe were on the other foot? I think many people today, especially the progressives, that's not how they approach questions. They want to win today on something, and they don't ask themselves that question - how does this work?

INSKEEP: People in your party don't do that.

BARR: Not as much. They're conservatives. People in both parties are doing it today.

INSKEEP: Well, I mean, people label themselves as conservative, but I'm just thinking of a few examples over a decade, and we could get many more examples - Republicans proposing in 2011 to stop paying federal debt, which arguably could have destroyed the U.S. economy, unless they got something that they wanted; Republicans shutting down the government...

BARR: Both sides play that game with the debt limit.

INSKEEP: True, but Republicans did it to such a dramatic extent that it very nearly worked and affected the economy; Republicans voting for Donald Trump, whose entire approach was I'm going to tear down the system, things need to change; Donald Trump in office, politicizing specific Cabinet departments and, according to your own account, working very hard to politicize the Justice Department. None of that is about upholding American institutions.

BARR: Well, I don't think he worked hard to politicize the Justice Department, but there's a difference between preserving our institutions and wanting to reform them and sort of break through the self-interest, sclerotic bureaucracy in Washington and make the institutions more responsive to the people.

INSKEEP: Wasn't January 6 an effort to tear down the system? Whatever lies people told themselves, it was an effort to tear down the democratic system.

BARR: Well, I didn't view it as an insurrection. I mean, I think it was a riot that got out of control.

INSKEEP: You don't think they really wanted to hang Mike Pence.

BARR: I don't think so.

INSKEEP: The gallows that they constructed...

BARR: I didn't think there was a risk that they would go and get Mike Pence and hang him up on Capitol Hill. I thought that that was essentially a propaganda-type thing.

INSKEEP: Barr describes the attack on the Capitol as tragic and deadly but also a farce. He says if he had been in the Senate during Trump's second impeachment, he likely would have sided with the Republicans, most of whom voted to acquit. It was after Trump had left office. Yet when he considers the next presidential election in 2024, William Barr says Republicans would be wise to nominate someone other than Trump, someone without the, quote, "obnoxious personal characteristics" of the president he once served.

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INSKEEP: William Barr's memoir is titled "One Damn Thing After Another."

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