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US Attorney General Deepens Distance With Trump, Steps Down


Attorney General William Barr speaks during a news conference, Dec. 21, 2020 at the Justice Department in Washington.

As U.S. Attorney General William Barr formally steps down Wednesday, the man once labeled by critics as President Donald Trump's "personal lawyer" has recently appeared to distance himself from the president on key election-related issues.

Trump has been repeating baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in the November 3 election won by Democrat Joe Biden.

But in a news conference Monday, Barr reiterated that he had seen no evidence of widespread fraud that could have tipped the election and no reason to appoint special counsels to investigate voter fraud and the business dealings of President-elect Biden's son, Hunter.

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, 62, will step in and serve as acting attorney general in the final weeks of the Trump administration.

Barr broke with Trump on other issues: the call by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to seize voting machines for evidence of wrongdoing, and Trump's assertion that it was China and not Russia that was behind the recent hacking of scores of U.S. government agencies and private corporations.

FILE - Attorney General William Barr, left, and President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 11, 2019, in Washington.
FILE - Attorney General William Barr, left, and President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 11, 2019, in Washington.

Barr's rejection of special counsel appointments stood in sharp contrast to his advocacy of Trump during his 22 months as attorney general. Throughout the Mueller investigation, Trump’s impeachment trial earlier this year, and the George Floyd protests, the 70-year-old attorney general, who holds an expansive view of executive power, championed Trump’s interests and authority.

After the election, the two men reportedly had a falling out after Barr refused to lend the Justice Department's imprimatur to Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud in key battleground states that were critical to Biden’s victory.

But Barr, who first served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993, said he did not regret returning to his old job, saying he knew he was “signing up for a difficult assignment" during a rough period.

No widespread voter fraud

The attorney general said that while he was "sure there was fraud in this election," as in most elections, he stood by earlier comments that he had found no evidence of widespread fraud that could alter the outcome of the election. In a December 1 interview with The Associated Press, Barr said that federal prosecutors and FBI agents investigating complaints about voter fraud had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

The comments undercut Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that widespread voter fraud in several closely contested states had cost him the presidency, drawing criticism from the Trump campaign. Trump reportedly fumed over the interview and last week announced that Barr would be leaving the Justice Department on December 23 to spend more time with his family.

“I was commenting on the extent to which we’d looked at suggestions or allegations of system or broad-based fraud that would affect the outcome of the election,” Barr told reporters, referring to the interview. “I stand by that statement.”

No need for a voter fraud special counsel

Barr dismissed calls by the president and his allies that the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to investigate voter fraud. The New York Times reported Saturday that Trump discussed naming lawyer Sidney Powell as a special counsel to investigate voter fraud.

Powell was recently dismissed by the Trump campaign after making baseless claims about an international conspiracy to rig the U.S. election, but she has brought several election fraud lawsuits on her own.

Asked about the widely criticized idea, Barr said, “If I thought a special counsel at this stage was the right tool and was appropriate, I’d name one, but haven’t. And I’m not going to.”

No basis to seize voting machines

In recent days, Trump allies such as Giuliani have reportedly discussed asking the Department of Homeland Security to seize voting machines as part of an effort to overturn the election results. Critics have denounced the idea, and Barr said it was groundless.

“I see no basis now for seizing machines by the federal government, a wholesale seizure of machines by the federal government,” Barr said, in response to a question.

No need for a Hunter Biden special counsel

Barr similarly shot down Republican calls for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden for tax evasion and other alleged crimes. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware is investigating the younger Biden’s taxes. Asked if he was concerned that the investigation would be scuttled by the incoming Biden administration, Barr said the probe was being handled “responsibly and professionally.”

“And to this point, I have not seen a reason to appoint a special counsel, and I have no plan to do so before I leave,” Barr said.

In an interview with Reuters last week, incoming Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen declined to say whether he would appoint special counsels. Rosen said he would continue “to do things on the merits and to do things on the basis of the law and the facts."

Durham investigation continues

Barr may be dissociating himself from Trump in the final days of his presidency, but he is leaving behind a criminal probe that Democrats say only serves Trump's interests: an ongoing "investigation of investigators" involved in examining suspected ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia.

Barr ordered the investigation into the Russia probe last year. In October, he quietly appointed the lead investigator, U.S. Attorney John Durham, as special counsel, giving him the authority to continue his investigation after Biden takes office.

Barr said he made the appointment to assure Durham and his team that “they would be able to finish their work.”

“They’re making good progress now, and I expect they’ll be able to finish their work,” Barr said, declining to say whether Durham had concluded that the investigation was unjustified.

Democrats say the Durham investigation is designed to delegitimize the Mueller probe, which uncovered numerous contacts between Trump associates and Russians but no evidence of a criminal conspiracy.