A Conversation With Bill Barr
A reminder to participants in The Transom’s Monthly Book Club — tonight’s session with Yuval Levin will begin promptly at 8 PM. Expect a Zoom link to be sent out in the hour prior — looking forward to the discussion!
Former Attorney General Bill Barr is an incredibly complex man, but also an expression of perhaps the best version of what a Trump Administration could have been. His book, One Damn Thing After Another, is the rare tale to emerge from this administration that is both worth reading and enjoyable. He spoke to me at length for the podcast this week. A transcript of some key answers follows:
Ben Domenech: There is a tendency on the part I think of many conservatives today to adopt what could be described as an almost warlike posture against the American left — a left that they truly believe is dedicated to the destruction of what they love about this country — and to perhaps have a more Nixonian attitude toward that effort, as opposed to Reagan's “happy warrior” concept. In terms of understanding that development within the conservative movement, do you believe that there's a place for both, or that there needs to be kind of a return to that Reaganesque attitude of trying to convince our fellow Americans?
Bill Barr: In a lot of respects, I think we need to return to the Reagan attitude. By the way, I have a tremendous amount of sympathy and respect for Nixon's position. You know, he felt the wrath of the left. He was sort of the first president to be torn to shreds and the hatred for him was very intense going back to his role in the Alger Hiss case and so I can understand his his intensity and his feelings against the left. They also tried to take down Reagan but his style of dealing with it was much different, much more affable, as you say, a happy warrior style, but he was tough and he was strategic in his thinking.
In some ways, you know, in my book, I sort of discussed this which is a lot of the American people, a lot of conservatives, a lot of the working and middle class were very frustrated and mad and what was happening to the country under the progressive influence during the Obama administration. In some sense, they wanted to stick their finger in the eye, they wanted to do to strike back. Trump caught that feeling of anger, and they liked his punching back all the time and his, his firmness and his direct speaking and so forth, and that played a positive role in him. Winning the primary and then ultimately winning the election.
But I've said it publicly I think the Make America Great Again movement has to mature. We actually have to start thinking what does it take to make America great? And it takes more than a somebody just constantly fighting, punching back punching down and, and it takes someone who thinks things through strategically and has a program to put America back on the right course and in cold blood can execute that program and not and not let these fights completely overwhelm the positive agenda that you know that we need to execute on. And I think that was Reagan style, and I think that's what we need going forward.
Ben: You know, that maturity concept, something that I have heard you say and other venues is something that I think is very critical in this moment. And I'd like you to talk a little bit about what that would look like one of the frustrations that seems to drive so much of the way that younger conservatives in particular think about this is this drive toward, you know, what is referred to online as owning the lips, you know, or or dunking on the left to punch down or punch back in any opportunity, as you said, but that doesn't solve the long term problems, the very real ones that prevent the application of a conservative agenda.
Barr: No, they don't. And most of what I think most of Trump's accomplishments other than his judicial appointments to the Supreme Court, were really blocking bad things from happening, not so much. Adopting long term solutions and putting things on a healthier trajectory for the country. And even and even his judicial appointments are somewhat undercut by the fact that all the appointees of Clinton are now retiring. And if we had held office for another four years, we could have replaced all those Circuit Court judges, but now that the Liberals are going to dominate in that sphere of the judiciary because we lost the election. So yeah, so So I think what it looks like there's a number of things Ron Reagan was able to unite the average American working class the rural areas with the college educated suburban people who were Republican and sympathies of thought that right registered Republican he brought those groups together, and then he actually attracted a lot of Democrats and classical liberals who were revolted by the excesses of the left during the 60s and 70s. We need a similar kind of candidate today who can bring those forces together.
Trump deserves credit for helping solidify the Republican Party as a working class party, but he's done it at the expense of a lot of other constituencies and needlessly. As Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia shows, the performance of our candidate in New Jersey showed, they're not mutually exclusive.
So, one, we need a style that unifies like that. Number two, we can't go back to the what people hate about the so called swamp, which is Republicans who are completely captured by the Washington environment and making decisions based on whether they're going to be praised by the Washington Post or the New York Times. That's one of the things that offended Middle America, and we can't go back to that we have to be willing to fight. There's some truth when people say in a Trump, Republicans had a fighter and we do need to fighter. But I also think we need to be strategic. We have to come into power next time with a strong majority win a decisive victory like Reagan did an ad where he won 40 states and then won re election by 49 states and then Bush won 40 states. We need that kind of dominance. And we need a program that essentially goes back to basics that has, you know, that that our goal is to restore the basic structure of American government how it's supposed to operate the federal system, smaller government with less ambition, maximize personal freedom.
We need a program of how we're going to get there, how we're going to how we're going to downsize the bureaucracy. Reduce the areas the federal government is in and so forth, and start executing on that program. And you know, I don't think, chaos is it. I think Trump disrupted the progressive juggernaut, but now we need something different.
Ben: There's a natural tendency, I think, among a lot of conservatives across the country, who've lived through the last decade plus of feeling that they are up against a hopeless situation with the behemoth that represents the federal bureaucracy and that the combination of the administrative state and the quote unquote Deep State or the the the law enforcement power that is weaponized against them, is something that cannot be overcome. And that leads you to this mentality of this kind of Hail Mary, approach this desperation move to try to wreck the system. How do you go about achieving those ends realistically of a more humble bureaucracy, one that actually doesn't occupy this eternal status in Washington program history and a, a law enforcement arm that isn't so easily weaponized by partisan forces. And deliver on that to a conservative movement and to a broader Republican coalition that seems to very much be wanting that but don't really know how to get it?
Barr: Well, I think it takes time and it's not something that can be accomplished. It was not something that Trump would have been able to accomplish even if he had a coherent program and doing it there was too short a period of time. I think you'd need at least two but probably three terms in office to make you know, to make serious progress in that. You need to control Congress because part of what has to happen is our laws and budget, discipline and changes to the civil service laws. That give the president more discretion over. incumbents, deeper down in the bureaucracy moving terminating some agencies all together, moving other agencies out of Washington, DC — you know, a whole set of things that could be done, but also there's a self correction involved.
When I took over the Department under under HW Bush, it was after eight years of Reagan. And the place was was a central, a centrist organization. It was not what people refer to as a deep state organization. And part of that was eight years Ronald Reagan when I took it over after eight years of Obama It was much different place. And I think had Trump won reelection and a lot of people would have left government because they would have been frustrated at at, you know, having to live under another term of Trump that is let the the progressive activist types that borrow into the government.
So there's a sort of a self correction. “Defund the left”, that was a big thing under under Reagan, and we have to get back to that. I mean, a lot of the public money is being spent actually on left wing organizations, but there are agendas across the board. Deep agendas that have to be followed to get our military back into a fighting organization instead of a, you know, a social experiment and other things that we have to do and the first step is to win a broad victory and a broad and deep election victory with a candidate who understands these things and has the discipline to carry through on them.
Ben: The issue of election fraud is obviously one that is animating a significant portion of people within the Republican coalition. Right now. They're they're very focused on it. They care a great deal about it, whatever their beliefs about the 2020 election, in terms of of whether it would have changed the outcome or not they feel frustrated, that fraud is present and not being fully investigated or is, is being kind of swept aside. What's the right note to strike when talking about election fraud, that recognizes its reality in certain respects, but also doesn't go too far in terms of undermining Americans faith in their own form of government and Representative elections in a way that is damaging to the project of a representative Republic.
Barr: Well, firstly is to understand exactly exactly the different phenomenon we're talking about. First, I said from my very first days in office, that I was very worried about the integrity of elections, and most importantly, how whether the Americans except the integrity of elections have consequences. And I think everything has to because we are so divided and the stakes are so high. We the gulf between the parties is so great ideologically, that we have to make sure that the elections are fair. And so that work has to be done before an election. Because it gets very hard after election to unscramble the egg and therefore we have to fight tooth and nail as some of the governors have to make sure that the rules mandate integrity in the election process.
There are three different phenomena at play. One are are things that are not illegal on their face, but which skew the playing field. So, you know, putting out places to collect ballots. You know, changing the time limit in which people have to vote and so forth. permitting, harvesting and things like that, those those are not illegal for the state. To do. But they skew the playing field. And there was a lot of that thing done in the name of COVID. And some of it was done maybe where it actually should have required legislative approval and it was done by lesser officials. And that then raises the question whether those rules were proper under state law.
The second set of things is rules to protect against fraud such as prohibit prohibitions on harvesting or requirements of having Republican or both parties having observers in the poll, or requiring an application that be filed and verified in order to get an absentee ballot. Those are examples of those kinds of rules. And there are cases where those rules are violated. Now what a lot of people don't understand is that when those rules are violated, that's bad and those people should go to jail. So if you're violating the harvesting laws and so forth, but it doesn't mean you throw out the votes. That's not the remedy. In order to throw out a vote, you still have to show it's an illegal vote. So when a harvester goes out, and brings in some ballots, you don't just throw out all the ballots, even if you could figure out what they were. That's one of the other problems you have is after the election, you really can't figure out where those ballots came from. But you know, but but you still have to show in order to affect the county so you have to show that the vote was unlawful in the sense that was not a legitimate voter.
So the remedy, for example, if they chase a Republican out of a polling station is not to throw out all the goods from that polling station, you still have to show it, so that makes it very hard to do. And it also means that you know whining about that stuff after the fact doesn't mean you change the election outcome. The third set of things are what falls under the heading of fraud. And fraud occurs when there's cheating in the sense that people who are not allowed to vote are phantom voters. Their votes are included. And people who were valid voters, their votes are excluded in some way. That's fraud.
And starting at the date of the night of the election, or the morning, early morning, when the President came down and started talking he started talking about fraud, major fraud underway and he's been talking about fraud and a lot of the initial allegations when I was in office were about fraud, you know, back to machines about you know, a truckload of bogus documents being dropped about suitcases of bogus, that was all nonsense. There was not fraud in that sense. On the scale that would have affected the election. And so those are the different pots now. The one we have to recognize we have as a party we have to do everything we can to prevent game play gaming the system, including this is awkward money stuff. Which may or may not be illegal. I don't know enough about it, but we have to do everything we can before the election.
And number three after election, it's good to have a robust retro retrospective examination of things because it helps keep people honest, I'm all for that. But to start going out and saying that the election was stolen, I thought it was irresponsible because there was not evidence to show that the the election was stolen.
There are two things that I think people have to again grow up about. Number one is the Trump campaign knew there was a risk and they didn't prepare effectively. And one of the reasons they didn't prepare effectively is because they didn't have the money. They ran out of money and they ran out of money because it was a trough where people were feeding at and so although in the spring, it's 2020. A lot of lawyers were telling the President and the campaign that they had that they had to proactively go out and get involved in some of this stuff and more aggressive legal effort. They didn't do it and he was warned about this. And people in law firms were saying no, we really need to get in there and deal with any any wouldn't do it. He was convinced that he needed 65 million votes to win and he was going to get that from his base. He did get seven tried from his base but he lost the election.
That's number one. And number two is when you really look at the election results, the idea that it was stolen from him is just bogus. He ran weaker than the Republican ticket in the battleground states. Okay, so then in Pennsylvania, he lost 50 to 60,000 Republican votes that voted straight Republican, but didn't vote for him. And just to compare that to Ronald Reagan, when he ran for reelection, he not only won every Republican, I mean, he ran better than the Republican ticket by 470,000 votes. Half a million Democrats in Pennsylvania voted for him and then voted the rest Democrat. That's a transformative figure. That's a populist. Trump was the weaker candidate. On the Republican ticket in the battleground states, you're not going to win a close race that way. So the idea this was stolen from him and that he really went won by a landslide is just poppycock.
Ben: So I don't mean to diminish the importance of presidential elections by comparing them to sports, but I think of the 2020 election in much the same way that I think of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the LA Lakers and the Sacramento Kings, which are broadly considered one of the greatest contests in the NBA playoffs in the past couple of decades. It was years later that we found out that one of the referees in it, Tim Donaghy, had essentially admitted to fixing Game Six with ways that fouls were called, but you don't go back and get to play the game again. Though, even if there are things that went on that were untoward, and I think that many people believe and I think there's strong proof that there were things that were untoward that were happening.
The key thing that you say there to me is once these things go in, it's almost impossible to get them out or to track them. And so the mistakes were being made beforehand that led to the circumstance. One thing I am curious about though, is how do we prevent that the next time around how can we get through we've had back to back elections, where with a losing side did not believe that they lost honestly in the know in 2016 and 2020. And whether you, you know, ascribe that to foreign interference as Hillary Clinton did, whether you ascribe that to massive fraud. As for President Trump does, you know, it is a good thing in America to have the losing side believe that they lost, honestly. And if they don't, that becomes a problem for the system.
So how is that prevented?
Barr: Well, I just want to reiterate, I mean, stress that which is there are two different issues. One issue is whether or not there's fraud. If you diminish the protections, people are not going to have confidence in the outcome, whether you can prove fraud or not. Whether there was fraud or not is a different issue. And we can discuss that also. But we cannot wait we shouldn't as I kept on the saying before the election, we shouldn't be diminishing the protection sheet. We should be increasing the protections. And that's the only thing we can do. And we have to be very vigilant in especially in the swing states, the states that are going to make a difference, and make it much harder to game the system…
Ben: Playing out things differently, in retrospect, separate from the election related issues, is the response that the administration had to the summer of Floyd, if you could replay that summer, what do you think should have been done differently, if anything, to try to confront the riotousness and violence that happened? Relative to acts of protest, where local officials particularly in blue cities, were basically saying, Don't come here. Don't send more cops don't send in the National Guard. You know, don't don't do anything to prevent this, even as a lot of suburbanites looked upon the scenes in front of them with with horror. And it frankly resulted in now trackable losses of population for a lot of these cities.
Barr: Well, it's hard to look at the summer without also thinking about COVID. I think COVID was more of a factor than frankly, the rioting was I think the rioting actually ended up helping the Republican Party. And I think I think a lot of voters who were inclined to be Republican, but really didn't like Trump, and would have preferred to vote against Trump, at the end of the day, held their nose and said, You know, I'd rather have Trump into law and order than the opposite. So I actually think that one of the reasons he got 75 million votes instead of 65 million votes was because of the rioting and the idea that the Democrats were going back to the Ferguson stuff and the rising crime.
We tried our best. The federal government doesn't have the ability without using the regular military to directly intervene and control rioting outside a very limited number of cities. You know, we could go into LA as we did in 1992. But if there are riots in three, four or five cities, significant ones, the federal government does not have the ability to to deal with it directly. We have to work through the states. We don't have you know, thousands of US Marshals we can just send and most of the federal resources from both DHS and Justice Department are not suited for that type of thing. You know, SWAT teams have long rifles, they're not designed to deal with rioters.
Ben: That sounds like there's very little that you think could have been done differently.
Barr: I think basically, that we had to hold the locals feet to the fire and not let them off the hook. And, and say, look, it's your job to do it. You should call out the National Guard if you need it. We're there to help you. We will stiffen you know, we'll send you know some tactical units to help. We will go after the arsonists, we will go after, you know, the people who've traveled out of state and so forth, but you know, securing the streets that has to be done by the state and local and we couldn't preempt and jump in and say okay, we're gonna do it. I guarantee you. I guarantee you that.
You know, the President wanted to send the paratroopers into Portland and if you actually start thinking that through, you know, what would their mission be? How would what would they do? But the problem is that that would metastasize. The rioting would have researched that it basically died out in the country, it would have come back and then the governors would have said, you broke it, you fix it. And that would have been three months before the election and you know, we would have had rioting across the country. It would have been a terrible position for the administration to be in.
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