WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump remained livid Wednesday at Attorney General William Barr, with one senior administration official indicating there was a chance Barr could be fired – not just for his public comments undercutting Trump’s unfounded claims of election-shifting fraud, but for steps he did not take on a probe of the FBI’s 2016 investigation into Trump’s campaign.
A day after Barr told The Associated Press that he had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Trump continued to complain about his attorney general, people familiar with the matter said.
One senior administration official said there was a chance Trump would fire his attorney general and asserted that the president was not merely frustrated over Barr’s fraud-related assertions. The person said that several people are trying to convince Trump he should not do so. Like others, this official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump, the official said, was perhaps even angrier that Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham did not issue a public report of his findings before last month’s election, and that Barr had secretly appointed Durham as special counsel in October, giving him extra legal and political protection to continue the work he had started a year ago. Durham is examining whether crimes were committed by law enforcement during its 2016 investigation of whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia.
“A lot of it is Durham,” the official said. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Asked at a news conference Wednesday if Trump still had confidence in Barr, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “The president, if he has any personnel announcements, you will be the first to know it.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump has often raged about his top law enforcement officials, though he has been less quick to terminate them.
The first time he did so, firing James Comey as FBI director shortly into his presidency, the bureau began investigating whether Trump was seeking to obstruct justice, a probe that would ultimately be taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller III.
Trump toyed with firing Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, almost from the moment Mueller was appointed in May 2017 – furious that his first attorney general had recused himself from the Russia case. He ultimately did not do so until November of the following year. Similarly, Trump did not fire Mueller, though Mueller’s investigation revealed he came close. And Trump allowed Rod Rosenstein, Sessions’s deputy who oversaw the Mueller investigation, essentially leave on his own.
More recently, Trump and his advisers have repeatedly discussed whether to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray, though that has not come to pass.
Barr has been one of Trump’s most loyal and effective cabinet secretaries, often drawing intense criticism for controversial moves at the Justice Department that seem to benefit the president’s friends or his allies. But on Tuesday, Barr became the highest-ranking administration official to break with Trump over his election fraud claims, speaking with the Associated Press to say he had not seen evidence of fraud so widespread that it could actually change the outcome.
The interview did not deter Trump. On Wednesday, the president posted to his Facebook page a 46-minute video in which he gave a speech doubling down on his unfounded claims.
Barr’s comments were caveated. He did not rule out any instances of fraud or election irregularities, and said the Justice Department had launched some inquiries. But he said most of the claims of fraud that had come to the department generally were “very particularized to a particular set of circumstances or actors or conduct. They are not systemic allegations.”
After the interview, a Justice Department spokesperson noted in a statement that Barr had not “announced an affirmative finding of no fraud in the election,” and added, “The Department will continue to receive and vigorously pursue all specific and credible allegations of fraud as expeditiously as possible.”
But his comments nonetheless won him some credit with those who have been skeptical in the past.
“Barr’s confirmation that the Department of Justice found no evidence of widespread voter fraud was welcome, especially after he had suggested before the election the potential for such fraud,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert who has criticized the attorney general’s past statements about the election. “Barr’s statement can be seen as a belated recognition that Trump’s fraud charges are hurting the country, or perhaps a way to prevent Trump from continuing to pressure Barr to produce evidence where none exists.”
Before the election, Barr had aggressively criticized mass mail-in balloting.
An associate of Barr, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations, said Barr decided to speak to The Associated Press in part because he knew questions about the election would continue well beyond his departure from the Justice Department.
“He has to leave, and he does not want there be questions about whether the department was sitting idly by under his watch with respect to investigating fraud,” the associate said.
The associate said there might have been some level of fraud or other irregularities with the election, but the Justice Department’s role was to look for crimes, not to conduct audits or assess the efficacy of the voting process. The associate said Barr believed Congress should examine the matter to “look into what he would say is sloppiness with this election,” and to “clean it up going forward.”
In addressing questions about Barr’s comments at Wednesday’s news conference, McEnany said Barr was also seeking to draw a distinction between “the use of the federal criminal justice system with allegations that should be made in civil lawsuits.”
“And the campaign’s litigation is all civil ligation, which is apart from something that the DOJ would be involved in,” she said.
Barr and Trump’s relationship had been deteriorating even before his comments to the Associated Press. One official said they had barely spoken in recent months, as the president was frustrated by the attorney general’s not releasing any findings of Durham’s investigation before the election, and not taking more aggressive steps to back his claims of election fraud. Barr met Tuesday with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, but it is unclear what they discussed.
Without telling the White House, Barr had in October secretly appointed Durham as a special counsel, essentially giving him more political and legal protection once the Biden administration takes over.
The move heartened some Republican lawmakers who have been critical of the FBI’s Russia probe, though it did not satisfy the president, who has pressed for criminal charges against his political enemies and those who investigated his campaign.
Durham’s probe remains ongoing, and Barr wrote in a letter to Congress that it had been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic and newly discovered information.
But it might be unlikely to live up to the lofty expectations Trump has set for it.
So far, Durham has charged only one FBI lawyer who altered a document that helped justify secret surveillance of Carter Page, a former adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. The lawyer pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Barr has said former president Barack Obama and President-elect Joe Biden are not being investigated in the probe. The Justice Department inspector general – despite finding significant failures in how the FBI applied to surveil Page – concluded the bureau had a legitimate purpose to launch and investigation into Trump’s campaign.