ABC News’s Jonathan Karl played a fairly lurid role in the Benghazi nontroversy of 2013 (and beyond). He was one of several reporters stovepiping distorted “evidence” from constantly leaking House GOP investigators directly into the mainstream media.
I wrote about one episode extensively: Karl “quoted” an e-mail “proving” that the White House had doctored Benghazi talking points to protect the State Department—meaning Secretary Hillary Clinton. Then CNN obtained the actual e-mail in question—and it didn’t mention the State Department. Karl had to admit that while he’d reported he’d “obtained” the e-mail in question, he hadn’t. He’d merely heard about it from the notes of a source—likely a House GOP staffer.
With his history of solid GOP sourcing, Karl has now produced his second tome about the Trump era, The Aftermath, to be published next year. Its breakout excerpt, published online in The Atlantic Sunday morning, is the first stop on former attorney general William Barr’s rehabilitation tour. It’s chock-full of Barr star turns as the conscience of the Justice Department, thwarting an out-of-control Trump. It’s a little tough to take.
To his credit, Karl acknowledges why some people might throw shade on his account: “Barr and those close to him have a reason to tell his version of this story. He has been widely seen as a Trump lackey who politicized the Justice Department.” Indeed.
“But when the big moment came after the election, he defied the president who expected him to do his bidding,” Karl writes. I would argue that there were big moments, earlier, where defying Trump would have been equally important—but hey, this is Karl’s story.
It took until almost a month after the election, December 1, for Barr to get the courage to publicly deny Trump’s lies about election wrongdoing. At a meeting with Associated Press reporter Michael Balsamo, which seems like it was expressly set up for the purpose of pushing back on Trump’s claims, Barr first “mumbled” his statement, Karl reports, and the AP reporter had to ask again. Karl writes:
“Just to be crystal clear,” Balsamo asked, “are you saying—”
“Sir, I think you better repeat what you just said,” Kupec interjected.
“To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr repeated. This time Balsamo heard him.
But before that, Barr regularly talked to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who worried that Trump’s claim of a stolen election, focused on Georgia among other states, was hurting the party’s chances of winning the two seats up in a runoff election January 5. (McConnell was right.) I guess it’s good that, as it turns out, Barr didn’t honor the GOP leader’s requests to push back on Trump’s claims immediately.
Still, may I point out the obvious? As attorney general, he shouldn’t have been kibitzing with Republican leaders in the first place. Remember Bill Clinton’s tarmac “hello” to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 2016? That gave us all of James Comey’s bad decisions, and helped give us President Trump. At least in the Atlantic excerpt Karl displays none of the Clinton-Lynch media umbrage when discussing the Barr-McConnell collusion. He writes:
“Look, we need the president in Georgia,” McConnell told Barr, “and so we cannot be frontally attacking him right now. But you’re in a better position to inject some reality into this situation. You are really the only one who can do it.”
“I understand that,” Barr said. “And I’m going to do it at the appropriate time.”
On another call, McConnell again pleaded with Barr to come out and shoot down the talk of widespread fraud.
“Bill, I look around, and you are the only person who can do it,” McConnell told him.
Eventually, he did it.
Karl also runs down how Barr initially took on investigating certain “vote irregularities,” but mainly to debunk them. “The move overturned long-standing policy that the Justice Department does not investigate voter fraud until after an election is certified,” Karl correctly notes. But he adds Barr’s self-defense:
Barr told me he had already concluded it was highly unlikely that evidence existed that would tip the scales in the election. He had expected Trump to lose and therefore was not surprised by the outcome. He also knew that at some point, Trump was going to confront him about the allegations, and he wanted to be able to say that he had looked into them and that they were unfounded.…
“My attitude was: It was put-up or shut-up time,” Barr told me. “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.”
Good on you, Bill Barr! A lot of us knew it earlier, but…
Karl reports on the moment Barr had to confront Trump about what he told the AP. Trump had “the eyes and mannerism of a madman,” one meeting attendee told the reporter. (Again, not the first time.)
“I think you’ve noticed I haven’t been talking to you much,” Trump said to him. “I’ve been leaving you alone.”
Barr later told others that the comment was reminiscent of a line in the movie Dr. Strangelove, in which the main character, Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, says, “I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.” Trump, Barr thought, was saying that he had been denying him his essence.
(Digression: OK, this is the weirdest part. Who would even think that? I can’t go there.)
“You know, you only have five weeks, Mr. President, after an election to make legal challenges,” Barr said. “This would have taken a crackerjack team with a really coherent and disciplined strategy. Instead, you have a clown show. No self-respecting lawyer is going anywhere near it. It’s just a joke. That’s why you are where you are.”
But even after that, Barr was willing to stay on, and top toady (chief of staff) Mark Meadows thought they’d worked out an arrangement to make that happen. But within two weeks, Barr decided to resign. His resignation letter was full of praise for Trump and criticism of congressional Democrats: His president “had been met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.” Even Trump called Barr’s letter “pretty good” as he accepted the resignation.
Of course, there was no recounting of the wrongdoing Barr had witnessed—for years, to be honest—and no sense that he was leaving because of the gathering storm of lies about the election that led to sedition on January 6.
Barr did not grant Karl this interview on December 16, or January 7. He’s taken his time and plotted his way forward, toward reputation cleansing and rehabilitation. He’s got a good story; I’m sure we’ll see a well-compensated Barr memoir soon. Barr could have told all of this long ago. Instead, he colluded with our traitorous ex-president.
Reading this excerpt made me feel dirty, and I fear the rest of the book will too.