Barr: Trump using 'extortion' to control GOP

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Former Attorney General William Barr said that former President Donald Trump was resorting to “extortion” to continue to exert influence over the Republican Party, and said he still hasn’t decided what to make of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago and the government’s recovery of hundreds of pages of classified documents.

In a lengthy interview published Thursday, former New York Times editor Bari Weiss asked Barr why more Republicans did not simply come out and say that Trump’s claims that election fraud had prevented him from winning the 2020 election were, to use Barr's previous word, “bullshit.”

“The tactic that Trump is using to exert this control over the Republican Party is extortion,” Barr said of his former boss. “What other great leader has done this? Telling the party, ‘If it’s not me, I’m going to ruin your election chances by telling my base to sit home. And I’ll sabotage whoever you nominate other than me.’ It shows what he’s all about. He’s all about himself.”

William Barr, left, with Donald Trump
Attorney General William Barr with President Trump in the Oval Office. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Barr recounted Trump's fury on Dec. 1, 2020, when he learned that his attorney general had given an interview to the Associated Press and told them there was no evidence of widespread election fraud. Trump exploded at Barr over the interview, a clash that reportedly led Barr to tender his resignation on the spot before being convinced by White House counsel Pat Cipollone to wait to announce his departure.

Although Trump once had nothing but public praise for Barr, his has since turned on his former attorney general, calling him a RINO — short for “Republican in name only” — who didn’t “have the courage or stamina to go after voter fraud.”

Weiss asked Barr, who also served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, whether he underestimated “Trump’s disregard for the truth and disregard for the results of the election.”

“I underestimated how far he would take it. I thought on Dec. 14, when I tendered my resignation, the states had all certified the votes. To me, that was it. That was the last stop,” Barr said. “There was no process beyond that which would allow him to challenge the election. I thought it was safe to leave at that point. I was wrong. I did not expect him to take it as far as he did with these very wacky legal theories that no one gave any credence to.”

Barr told Weiss that he felt Trump had been a victim of a conspiracy theory that posited he was a possible Russian agent during the 2016 presidential campaign, a claim that Barr said was unfairly used as the basis for special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. This week, the Justice Department released the full memo written for Barr that advised him not to charge Trump with any crime in relation to the 2016 election, including firing of the FBI Director James Comey.

Attorney General William Barr
Barr at a news conference in 2020. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via Reuters)

But Barr’s views on Trump’s actions after the 2020 election are decidedly more sour. He didn’t hold back when Weiss asked what he felt watching the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol unfold.

“I was disgusted and mortified and feeling very angry. I felt this whole thing had hurt the Republican Party and hurt the reputation of the administration even more than before. I was angry about that. Everyone I knew in the administration was angry about that. I also felt that it was just a Keystone Cops exercise. There wasn’t a genuine threat of overthrowing the government, as far as I was concerned, it was just a circus,” Barr said, adding that “the whole thing, to me, was a big embarrassment.”

The riot, Barr said, was “a shameful episode. ... And the president certainly precipitated it.”

As for the current legal standoff between Trump and both the Justice Department and the National Archives, Barr said he is waiting to see what information emerges before he draws a final conclusion about what the government has said was hundreds of pages of classified documents improperly stored at Trump’s Florida estate.

“I think everyone is reaching conclusions that are premature because there are two bits of important information that we need to have. One: What is the nature of the highly classified information? How sensitive were these documents? Second: What is the evidence, if any, of active conceit by the president or those around him in Mar-a-Lago to mislead the government?" Barr said. "Until you answer those two questions, it's hard for me to say whether or not it was justified. I think people who are taking a knee-jerk position on both sides really should wait and see what that evidence is."

Donald Trump
An image of Donald Trump displayed on a screen during during a House select committee hearing in July. (Al Drago/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released Thursday found that after the search was conducted Trump’s support among Republicans rose by seven points (to 54%) for those who said he was their top pick for president in 2024. On the downside for Trump, 56% of all Americans polled now say Trump should not be “allowed to serve as president again in the future” if he is “found guilty of mishandling highly classified documents."

Despite all of his misgivings about his former boss and what he witnessed first-hand at the end of his term, however, Barr still seemed unwilling to quit Trump altogether.

"In the 2024 election, if we have Joe Biden versus Trump, Kamala Harris versus Trump, or Gavin Newsom versus Trump, you’re voting Trump?" Weiss asked the former attorney general.

“Right now, I would say yes,” Barr said.

Yet asked for his assessment of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who may have the best shot of any prospective Republican Trump challenger, Barr made clear that Trump was not his first choice to become the GOP nominee.

“I don’t know Ron DeSantis that well, but I’ve been impressed with his record in Florida. I’m going to support whoever has the best chance of pushing Trump aside,” Barr said.