ABC News chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl has made waves with his recent piece in The Atlantic, titled “Inside William Barr’s Breakup With Trump,” about the former U.S. attorney general’s story of a nasty falling-out with former President Donald Trump in the wake of Barr’s public admission in early December that there was no evidence of voter fraud that Trump was alleging had stolen the election from him.
USA Today also gave a deferential treatment to Barr’s current telling of the story, with a write-up of Karl’s piece entitled “It’s just a joke’: Former AG William Barr derided Trump's false election claims.”
However, none of this fawning coverage did anything to provide accountability for Barr’s own prominent role in helping Trump build up a false public narrative of massive fraud in the months before the election.
Indeed, right before the 2020 election, ABC News had tracked some of Barr’s “unfounded argument” seeking to sow distrust in the expanded use of mail-in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, Karl had also reported on a Department of Homeland Security bulletin on Russian disinformation against mail-in voting, which sought to further spread Trump’s own false claims. USA Today had also published a guest column in July by cybersecurity experts, debunking many of Barr’s claims.
But now, Barr’s actual record in this matter is left on the cutting-room floor.
Barr pushed false claims of voter fraud and mocked concerns that Trump would refuse to leave office
Karl wrote about Barr’s informal review of various claims of voter fraud in the weeks following Election Day because he “knew that at some point, Trump was going to confront him about the allegations.” As Barr told Karl, “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.”
However, Trump would have had every reasonable expectation that Barr would help him out — because throughout 2020, Barr mounted his own propaganda operation against the security of the upcoming election. Far from treating it like “bullshit,” at this stage, the attorney general pushed multiple false claims that the Trump campaign would use to try and overturn the election from Election Day through January 6 — and which are even still in circulation today.
In the spring of 2020, Barr floated a conspiracy theory in an interview with The New York Times that “there are a number of foreign countries that could easily make counterfeit ballots, put names on them, send them in.” He then dug in on this idea again in September, telling CNN that he was “basing it on logic.”
Election experts would explain all the ways such fraud was impossible, because real mail-in ballots have individual identifiers such as barcodes and signatures for tracking and processing, and they must be correctly printed on the right kind of paper to be scanned by each local ballot machine. However, Barr’s claim still lives on today, with the QAnon-linked ballot “audit” in Arizona looking for such things as rumored bamboo fibers as evidence of fake ballots being flown in or secret watermarks that were placed as part of an elaborate sting operation for false ballots.
In September, Barr also asserted that mail-in voting would destroy the protections of the secret ballot: “There’s no more secret vote. … Your name is associated with a particular ballot. The government and the people involved can find out and know how you voted. And it opens up the door to coercion.” (This, too, was false, as there are safeguards in place to prevent a specific person’s vote from being identified at the counting stage.)
Notably, in one interview with Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, Barr also sought to discredit the counting of mail-in votes as he painted a picture of the exact scenario that Trump and his allies would later seek to take advantage of — a “red mirage” followed by a “blue shift,” in which Trump would appear to be ahead on Election night before the counting of mail-in votes that were disproportionately cast by Democrats. “Someone will say the president just won Nevada,” Barr offered hypothetically. “‘Oh, wait a minute! We just discovered 100,000 ballots! Every vote will be counted!’ Yeah, but we don’t know where these freaking votes came from.”
In the same interview, Barr also dismissed the idea that Trump would attempt to subvert the election result. “You know liberals project,” Barr said. “All this bulls--- about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I’ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I’m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it.” (Later, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Barr said in a statement that Trump’s conduct that day was a “betrayal of his office and supporters.”)
Nowhere in his Atlantic piece did Karl grapple with any of these statements. Instead, he simply left the reader with the impression that Barr knew after the election that claims of widespread voter fraud were “all bullshit.”
Karl omitted Barr’s statement in December that false claims of voter fraud would “continue to be pursued”
At the end of his Atlantic piece, Karl gave a sympathetic slant to Barr’s resignation as attorney general in late December, when Barr seemingly tried to leave on positive terms while separating himself from the disastrous efforts of Trump’s inner circle to reverse the election result.
Barr almost immediately began to regret his decision to stay. His statement on election fraud did nothing to deter Trump, who was now listening, almost exclusively, to Giuliani and others outside his administration. They were telling him that he was still going to win the election.
Two weeks later, Barr went down to the White House to tell the president that he planned to resign before the end of the year. It was their first meeting since their confrontation. To defuse the tension, Barr had written an effusive resignation letter, which he handed to the president when he got to the Oval Office. The letter praised Trump’s record and played directly into his complaints about how he had been treated by Democrats, saying his efforts “had been met by a partisan onslaught against you in which no tactic, no matter how abusive and deceitful, was out of bounds.”
To be exact, those quotes came from the second paragraph of Barr’s published resignation letter. However, Karl omitted the very first paragraph of the full letter, in which Barr continued to publicly dignify Trump’s efforts to sow mistrust in the election:
I appreciate the opportunity to update you this afternoon on the Department’s review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued. At a time when the country is so deeply divided, it is incumbent on all levels of government, and all agencies acting within their purview, to do all we can to assure the integrity of elections and promote public confidence in their outcome.
Nowhere in that paragraph did Barr acknowledge that these allegations of fraud were all “bullshit,” as he now puts it, but instead stated they would “continue to be pursued” as a valid concern for the American public.
Karl could have held Barr accountable for that opening paragraph. Instead, his piece said nothing about it.
Instead, while guest anchoring on Sunday’s edition of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Karl touted his own “amazing interview” in which Barr “talked about what he really thought of Donald Trump's claims of election fraud.” (Notably, Karl also did not correct former Trump administration official Sarah Isgur’s false claim during the subsequent panel discussion that the Mueller Report “for the most part” had exonerated the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia in 2016.)