Bill Barr did not think much of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. According to his videotaped testimony before the House select committee investigating how those lies resulted in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Trump’s former Attorney General told Trump this to his face. Among his choice words about various claims by the Trump legal team: “bullshit,” “completely bullshit,” “absolute rubbish,” “idiotic,” “bogus,” “stupid,” “crazy,” “crazy stuff,” “complete nonsense,” and “a great, great disservice to the country.” What’s more, Barr added, if Trump actually believed the garbage he was spewing about the election, then he had become dangerously “detached from reality.”
When the committee convened, on Monday, for its second public hearing, Barr, in a pre-recorded video deposition, turned out to be the surprise star witness, debunking his former boss’s fantastical and malicious election falsehoods with a derision that bordered on outright contempt. It was also clear that Barr was hardly alone among the President’s men in that view. The panel produced evidence—sworn, on-the-record evidence—that many other Trump advisers and officials had also known that Trump lost the 2020 election fair and square, had told him so directly, and had recommended against pursuing the bogus lawsuits and inflammatory disinformation campaign that Trump chose to wage anyway. Trump’s campaign lawyers told him this. Trump’s White House lawyers told him this. Trump’s political advisers—including his son-in-law Jared Kushner—told him this. Their statements to that effect were, like Barr’s, shown at Monday’s hearing.
“I never saw any evidence whatsoever to sustain those allegations,” Eric Herschmann, a White House attorney for Trump, said.
“It was not sufficient to be outcome-determinant,” Matt Morgan, the general counsel for the Trump campaign, said.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, testified that in the days after the election, as votes were counted and key states were called for Joe Biden, he had concluded that Trump’s prospects were “very, very, very bleak”—a conclusion he shared with the former President when he told him that he, in fact, had no more than a “five to ten per cent” chance of actually winning. (Never mind that, really, Trump at that point had a zero per cent chance of winning, a chance so “infinitesimal,” that, as Chris Stirewalt, the former Fox News political-data guru who also testified on Monday, put it, he would have been better off “playing Powerball.”)
Stepien, like Barr, was not present at Monday’s hearing in person—he had been expected to appear as the panel’s marquee witness, until his wife went into labor early Monday morning—but he still offered one of the day’s most important facts about the disastrous ending of the Trump Presidency. His insight was this: that those who knew better about the election and told Trump he had lost were pushed away or chose to abandon the field, leaving Trump to his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the progressively more absurd counsel he offered. It was “Team Normal,” as Stepien called it, versus “Rudy’s team.” When it became clear which team Trump was on, Stepien said, “I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional at that point so that led to me stepping away.”
It’s not hard to decide which side to take in the contest between Team Normal and Team Rudy. The former New York mayor was effectively portrayed, on Monday, as a drunken buffoon who pushed Trump to claim victory on Election Night when it was obvious he had not won, and who offered worse and worse advice as the weeks dragged on and the courtroom defeats piled up. In Trump, Giuliani had a more-than-willing accomplice, as the testimony of Trump’s own former advisers so damningly showed. Team Normal presented the President the truth about many of Giuliani’s claims, but the truth did not matter. “There was never an indication of interest in what the actual facts were,” Barr said.
This made for compelling congressional testimony. I cannot think of any other instance in American history when a former Attorney General of the United States has accused the President who appointed him of peddling “bullshit” to the American people.
To anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention to the Trump Presidency, however, it was more than a bit infuriating, too. Because Bill Barr and Bill Stepien and the rest of Monday’s witnesses from inside the Trump Administration were not only Trump’s accusers but also first-class enablers of Trump and his lies—until Trump finally found a lie too big for them to enable. Even when it came to their qualms about Trump’s “rigged election” crusade, their outrage came conveniently after the fact, not when it might have made a difference.
Are we really to listen to lectures about honesty and professionalism from a campaign manager whose candidate began assaulting the integrity of the election months before it took place, who called it “rigged” and “stolen” before any ballots had been counted? By the time Trump very unwillingly left the White House, on January 20, 2021, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker project had documented more than thirty thousand false or misleading statements made over the course of his Presidency—the vast majority before the election. But Barr and Stepien and all the other witnesses who testified on Monday were apparently fine with those. They did not object publicly when Trump nearly blew up NATO, or exchanged “love letters” with North Korea’s young tyrant, or took the word of Vladimir Putin over American intelligence officials.
Barr talked about how detached from reality Trump seemed. Yet consider the text of his resignation letter to Trump—a resignation that he submitted, he made clear in his testimony, because he could no longer serve Trump and perpetuate his lies. Barr did not mention any of that in his letter. Instead, he hailed Trump’s “many successes,” and the “unprecedented achievements you have delivered for the American people.” Barr has even said he would vote for Trump again in 2024 if he wins the G.O.P. nomination. And this was after his memoir, “One Damn Thing After Another,” came out this year, making many of the same accusations about Trump’s post-election behavior that were dramatically aired in Congress on Monday. At least Barr has not equivocated in his public remarks about Trump’s bogus election claims, starting with his December 1, 2020, statement making clear his Justice Department had found no fraud that warranted overturning the election. Stepien, the former Trump campaign manager, has never spoken out publicly about the conduct that he now tells us was dishonest and unprofessional. Stepien is currently an adviser to the Trump-backed Republican primary opponent challenging Liz Cheney, in a campaign of retribution against the January 6th committee’s vice-chair, who has repeatedly called out Trump’s election lies.
This was always going to be a challenge for the House committee: the best testimony would inevitably come from those closest to the former President, the ones who were trusted enough to be in the room with him. There is undoubted power in hearing that Trump had finally gone too far even for his most loyal retainers. The committee’s dilemma is the same one journalists faced through the four years of Trump’s Administration: how to reconcile the cravenness and self-serving behavior of those whose recollections are nonetheless indispensable in understanding what happened with the former President?
Exposing Trump’s fraud, certainly, is far more consequential for the fate of American democracy than calling out the maddening inconsistencies of his subordinates. Bill Barr’s testimony was no less powerful, I suppose, for the incredible hypocrisy he and many other leading Republicans continue to show by picking and choosing which of Trump’s many transgressions they care about. But isn’t it also fair, now, to call bullshit on Team Normal? ♦