Bill Barr Embraces the Darkness

After everything the former attorney general has seen and heard, he says he’ll still vote for Trump.

A black-and-white photo of Bill Barr
Matt McClain / Xinhua / Redux

About the author: Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum, and the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

Even Bill Barr, Donald Trump’s former attorney general and votary, has turned on the former president.

In his new book, One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General, Barr wrote that Trump was responsible for the violent assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, an effort whose intent was to overturn the presidential election.

“I do think he was responsible in the broad sense of that word, in that it appears that part of the plan was to send this group up to the Hill,” Barr told NBC’s Lester Holt. “I think the whole idea was to intimidate Congress. And I think that that was wrong.”

After the election, Trump became “manic and unreasonable”; he “was off the rails” and “lost his grip,” according to Barr. He added, “The absurd lengths to which he took his ‘stolen election’ claim led to the rioting on Capitol Hill.” Barr refers to Trump’s “erratic personal behavior” and recounts a meeting after the election, on December 1, when Trump berated Barr for not embracing his conspiracy theories that the election was rigged.

“I told him that all this stuff was bullshit about election fraud,” Barr told Holt. “And, you know, it was wrong to be shoveling it out the way his team was. And he started asking me about different theories. And I had the answers. I was able to tell him, ‘This is wrong because of this.’”

In his book, Barr describes Trump’s reaction this way: “This is killing me—killing me. This is pulling the rug right out from under me.” The former president, referring to himself in the third person, added, “You must hate Trump. You would only do this if you hate Trump.”

Barr, seeing that Trump was enraged, tendered his resignation. According to Barr, Trump pounded the desk and said, “Accepted!”

“And then boom! He slapped it again,” Barr told Holt. To make sure that nothing had been lost in the translation, Trump once again said, “Accepted! Leave, and don’t go back to your office. You are done right now. Go home!”

Barr’s account is notable in part because he often acted more like Trump’s defense attorney than the attorney general. Among the disquieting things he did was putting forward a “distorted” and “misleading” account of the report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to Reggie B. Walton, a highly respected federal judge who was appointed by President George W. Bush. Barr’s “lack of candor” called into question his “credibility and, in turn, the [Justice] Department’s” assurances to the court, Walton ruled in a lawsuit challenging the department.

The differences between the Mueller report and Barr’s description of it caused the court to “seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary,” Walton wrote.

So for someone like Bill Barr to break with Trump underscores just how reckless and unstable the former president was in his final days in office. Yet when asked recently by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie whether he agrees with Representative Liz Cheney that Trump is unfit to be president and should never be near the Oval Office again, Barr initially avoided the question.

“I certainly have made it clear I don’t think he should be our nominee, and I’m gonna support somebody else for the nomination,” Barr said.

Guthrie wasn’t done just yet. “But if he is the nominee and your choice is Donald Trump or whoever’s running on the Democratic side, would you vote for him?” she asked.

“Because I believe the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party, it’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee,” Barr said.

“So even if he lied about the election and threatened democracy, as you write in your book, better than a Democrat?” Guthrie asked.

“As of now, it’s hard for me to conceive that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee,” he answered.

Think, for a moment, about Barr’s mindset:

  • He believes that Donald Trump perpetrated a massive conspiracy in order to overturn a presidential election.
  • He believes that the former president is responsible for sending a violent mob—including one person wearing a black hoodie emblazoned with Camp Auschwitz, some erecting a gallows with a rope, others chanting “Hang Mike Pence”—to storm and desecrate the Capitol in hopes of intimidating lawmakers.
  • He believes that the former president has gone “off the rails” and “lost his grip,” was “manic and unreasonable,” and has demonstrated “erratic personal behavior.”

And yet Bill Barr would still vote for Donald Trump for president. It raises the question: Just what would Trump need to do in order for Barr not to vote for him?

One need not be a progressive to be troubled by Barr’s stance. Indeed, one can believe, as Barr does and as I do, that the left poses threats to our country. If Barr can’t vote for a Democrat in good conscience, the obvious alternative would be to write in some other name on his ballot. But for Barr, that’s not enough. He has come to view the Democratic Party as so depraved, so malicious, so malevolent, and so close to a total victory that would shatter America that he would vote for a man he clearly considers psychologically unhinged, reckless, dangerous, and living in a delusional world. In fact, it’s inconceivable to Barr that he wouldn’t vote for such a man.

In late October 2016—less than two weeks before the presidential election—I had lunch with a wise friend; we were trying to understand the appeal of Donald Trump and the dangerous turn many on the American right had taken in supporting him. He described their world as “a psychologically strange and dark place.” There is an “emotional need for a dark narrative,” he told me.

Bill Barr, an intelligent man who previously served as attorney general under George H. W. Bush, has embraced that dark narrative; he has wandered into that dark place. He has convinced himself that we face an existential threat, which has caused him to be gripped by an existential fear. He thinks we are in a fight to the death—not against foreign enemies but against other Americans. That cast of mind, whatever political ideology people embrace, can lead them into some very dangerous places, where the normal rules don’t apply.

Barr’s error isn’t so much that his critique of the left is completely without merit; it is that he’s so consumed by the threat from the left that he has become blind to the larger and more imminent threat.

For all his searing criticisms of Trump, and despite his frightening portrayal of the former president’s mental and emotional states, Barr has made clear that if Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party, he can count on Barr’s vote. Without a moment’s hesitation, he would hand the nuclear launch codes back to a man he describes as manic, unreasonable, and off the rails.

During the 2016 campaign Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Trump must have had Barr in mind.