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Bill Barr won't back a 2024 Trump run but doesn't quite condemn his former boss

MCLEAN, VA - MARCH 2: American attorney who served as the 77th and 85th United States attorney general in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump, William Barr, sits for a portrait at his house in McLean, VA on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (Photo by Shuran Huang For NPR)
William Barr, who served as the U.S. attorney general in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump, spoke with NPR during an interview at his house outside of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

Editor's note: This story contains language that some people may find offensive.William Barr says many people have the wrong idea about his time as attorney general in the Trump administration."The media chose to weave a narrative that I was a toady to the president, and that was false from the beginning, because I felt I could be independent, and I was," he told Morning Edition in an interview that aired on Monday.Barr gives his version of events in a new memoir called One Damn Thing After Another, a reference to how one of his predecessors described running the Justice Department. In an NPR interview, Barr maintains that he bluntly refuted the president's notions about a stolen election. He also defends his interventions in investigations of Trump and his allies.The memoir takes a critical look at Trump's presidency and suggests Republicans should nominate someone else in 2024. If Trump ran again, Barr told NPR, "I think that he would be one of the weaker candidates. We have a lot of young candidates who will fight for principle but don't have the sort of obnoxious personal characteristics that alienate a lot of voters."Yet the book is just as notable for how much Barr still agrees with the former president. He blames left-wing progressives, not his own party, for dividing the country.Barr describes the former president as constantly distracted by his own self-interest. This trait was exploited by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state at the time:"We had this running joke that, whenever the president was chewing out Mike about something in a private Oval Office meeting, all Mike had to do was mention Russiagate or something like that," he said. "And the president would, you know, take it and run for quite a while, he'd rant and ... he wouldn't remember what he was angry at Pompeo about.""At one point, I said to the president: 'You know, Mr. President, you're like a bull in a bull ring and your adversaries have your number. They know how to get under your skin, and all they have to do is wave a red flag over here and you go charging and attack it.' And I said, 'At the end of the day, you're going to be in the middle of the ring sweating and someone's going to come and put a sword through your head,' " said Barr. "He didn't think much of that metaphor."

A natural sympathy for Trump, worn thin by election lies

Barr, a two-time attorney general and conservative Republican, grew up in a conservative family in liberal New York City. When left-wing protesters took over the library at Columbia University during the 1960s, Barr, a freshman,joined the counterprotesters.Barr worked for the CIA before his first stint as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. His book spends much time on the culture wars, accusing radical progressives of dividing the country — making it easier to understand what he saw in Donald Trump.But after the 2020 election, when Barr couldn't tell Trump what he wanted to hear, the attorney general finally broke with the president.As he told The Associated Press at the time, Barr said the Justice Departmentfound no evidence of any widespread voter fraud in the election. Barr says in his book that he told the president to his face that the stolen election claims were "bull****."The president angrily accepted Barr's resignation on the spot. He took it back moments later, but Barr resigned for real in December 2020."After the election, he didn't seem to listen to anybody except a group of sycophants who were telling him what he wanted to hear," Barr said.When the DOJ investigated the baseless election fraud claims, Barr said, "it was like playing whack-a-mole. All the theories of the day that came out, when we looked into them, they just evaporated. They were just completely without foundation."Barr called attention to anNPR interview with Trump in January, in which Trump repeated election lies. "He's had a year to think about it," Barr said, and still has no better evidence than a false claim that Biden received "more votes than voters" in Philadelphia. The claim has been disproven, "and yet you continue to hear this thing repeated," he said.

He calls his Trump-friendly decisions a refusal to criminalize politics

Before Trump tried to overturn the election, Barr was seen as one of his ruthless defenders, making decisions for the Justice Department that favored Trump and his allies.He does not express regret for those decisions. He argues that too many political differences are turned into criminal investigations, which is why, he said, he personally intervened in high-profile cases during his tenure.He dropped a charge against former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI, even though Flynn himself admitted to the crime. Barr said FBI agents did not have a good reason to question him.In 2019, Barr supplied to Congress his own summary of the high-profile investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, concluding that the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russia and that no determination could be made as far as an obstruction of justice.Then-special counsel Robert Mueller, who led the investigation,said Barr failed to capture the "substance" of Mueller's findings. Barr disagreed, and tells NPR that he has not spoken to his longtime friend since then.Does Barr have anything to say to Mueller today? "I wouldn't tell him anything," Barr said. "He tried to do his job. I tried to do my job."

In some ways, Barr and Trump remain on the same page

On many issues, Barr defends the former president. He tells NPR that he didn't "understand" Trump's "affinity" for political strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin but did understand his efforts at fostering good relations with Putin.Then there was Trump's infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In that 2019 call, Zelenskyy appealed for Javelin missiles to defend themselves against Russian tanks, weapons Ukraine now says it needs more of in its fight againstthe Russian invasion.Trump asked Zelenskyy for help in digging up political dirt to use in his reelection. He urged Zelenskyy to talk with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and with Barr. Barr says he had nothing to do with it."It was an absurd idea and it was pursued in a farcical way," Barr said. "But at the time, I didn't think it was criminal, and I still don't think it was criminal."For all of his criticism of Donald Trump, Barr repeatedly writes that radical leftists are the ones who want to tear down traditional American institutions.Asked about whether the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol wasn't an effort to tear down the democratic system, he said, "I didn't view it as an insurrection. I mean, I think it was a riot that got out of control."Despite calls from a pro-Trump mob at the Capitolthat day to "hang Mike Pence," Barr said he didn't take the threat against the then-vice president literally. "I thought that that was essentially a propaganda-type thing," he said.He tells NPR that if he had been in the Senate for Trump's second impeachment, he would have voted to acquit the former president because Trump had left office by then.Nonetheless, he's hoping that his party moves on — by making a different choice when they select the next Republican presidential nominee.Barry Gordemer and Jan Johnson produced and edited the audio version of this story. Emma Bowman produced it for the web. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.