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Trump's former AG Bill Barr says failing to prosecute Trump would be 'unjust'

Attorney General William Barr takes the oath before he appears before the House Oversight Committee on July 28, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
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Attorney General William Barr takes the oath before he appears before the House Oversight Committee on July 28, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.

Updated July 15, 2023 at 1:37 PM ET

While defenders of former President Donald J. Trump have denounced the federal indictment against him, his former chief law enforcement officer sees it differently.

"I think he got into trouble because he defied the subpoena," said William Barr, former U.S. Attorney General during an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep for Morning Edition.

Barr said Trump brought the indictment on himself through his "egregious" refusal to return U.S. government documents.

During the interview, Barr switched between legal terms and colloquial phrases in his effort to describe Trump's long refusal to return the documents. He characterized Trump's behavior as "contumacious," which he defined as "a willful violation that was effectively flipping the bird at the government."

"He was going to show them that no one was going to push him around, and that he was, in effect, still the president and could do what he want and get away with it," Barr said.

On Monday, lawyers for Trump requested a federal judge postpone his trial regarding classified documents arguing that it could happen during the 2024 presidential race and "will impact both the outcome of that election and, importantly, the ability of the Defendants to obtain a fair trial," his lawyers wrote in a court filing.

Federal prosecutors are asking for a December 11 trial start date. Special counsel Jack Smith responded on Thursday in a new court filing opposing the request to delay saying it "borders on frivolous."

"What is unjust is not prosecuting Trump at this stage," Barr said to Morning Edition.

In some ways, Barr's criticism is not a surprise. Although, as attorney general he was accused of protecting and even enabling some of Trump's attempts to abuse the law enforcement system, Barr resigned in late 2020 after publicly refuting Trump's false claims of a stolen election. He eventually detailed his criticism of the former president in a book, One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General.

Barr has remained a steadfast Republican criticizing the progressive movement and deeming it so dangerous, he has said in the past, he might be left with no choice but to vote for Trump if he is nominated again. Barr said he would "never" vote for President Biden. So, he is using his influence as a Republican to push the party to nominate someone other than Trump. He sought to persuade his fellow conservatives, most of whom insist Trump is being treated unfairly in the federal indictment.

"This, he provoked himself," said Barr in the interview with Morning Edition. "He brought it entirely on himself, and through a pattern of conduct that is also typical of Trump, which is going to excess and doing reckless things with the idea that he can get away with it."

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Steve Inskeep: Why would you imagine that he would want to defy the government and keep these documents?

Bill Barr: Well, my own opinion is that it was a power play. It was — essentially, the government wanted him — and that this was an act of self-assertion. But once the government said give [the documents] back, then he was going to show them that no one was going to push him around, and that he was in effect still the president and could do what he want and get away with it.

Steve Inskeep: The way you're describing this case, Mr. Barr, is of course, very different than it's being described in a lot of conservative media and in a lot of Republican circles. Even people who say they are no fans of Trump will allege this is a political prosecution. What are you saying when you get in conversations like that?

Bill Barr: What I say is, there have been cases in the past where I think his enemies and the left have gone after him obsessively and unfairly, and told lies about him; and that he was, in that sense, a victim. But in this case, in my opinion, he was not. This, he provoked himself. He brought it entirely on himself, and through a pattern of conduct that also was typical of Trump, which is going to excess and doing reckless things with the idea that he can get away with it. And the government got videos and other information indicating that he was cheating them. He was deceiving the government and still not giving everything back. So, I don't think the government had much of a choice at that point but to execute a search to retrieve the documents.

And everyone presented that as some outrage — you know, '"Well, why didn't you ask him?" Well, it turns out they had asked him for a year and a half. "Oh, why didn't you get a subpoena?" Well, it turns out he got a subpoena. The fact is that anybody – a general or a former diplomat or anyone who did this would be prosecuted and go to prison. So, this is a righteous case as far as the law is concerned.

There's this next question is, as a matter of a prudential judgement, is there a reason not to do the prosecution? And I think the basic argument being made here is that Hillary Clinton was let off [after using a private email server for classified information as Secretary of State], therefore it is a double standard and therefore you should let off Trump. And I don't think that that's a frivolous argument, but it's hard for me to fault the decision to go forward because, to me, the solution to a double standard is to apply the right standard in a case and try to apply it going forward, even handily.

Steve Inskeep: You're saying that even if the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton was wrong, that the Justice Department should still do what is right in your view and prosecute here?

Bill Barr: I don't think the way to stop the double standard is to keep on perpetuating it by having equal injustice. The argument that Hillary should have been prosecuted, well, what was unjust is Hillary was not prosecuted. What is unjust is not prosecuting Trump at this stage. How do you control and protect classified information going forward? You just prosecute the little guys, but you let the big guys get off if they flipped the bird at the government? I mean, I'm not sure where that takes us.

Steve Inskeep: I'm thinking about the old saying justice delayed is justice denied. If Trump's lawyers succeed in significantly delaying this case, even getting it delayed until sometime after the election, is that justice denied?

Bill Barr: Well, it depends who wins the election. I think if Trump wins the primaries and is the nominee, which I do not think he will be; but if he is and then if he gets elected, my assumption is the case would be dropped, or he would have the case dropped. I mean, it will be a mess. It'll be a mess.

Steve Inskeep: He's been indicted twice. Do you think it's likely he'll be indicted again? There is this investigation in Fulton County, Georgia into his interference in the 2020 election. There's the entire investigation to January 6 [the attack on the Capitol in 2021]. Would you find it reasonable to see another indictment of Trump before long?

Yeah, now I'm certainly not cheerleading for it, because they seem to help him. But it seems to me that Georgia is poised to do this. They've taken it pretty far, so I assume they're going to finish it. And my own belief is that the Justice Department is going to indict people on the January sixth matter, and my own bet would be that would include the president.

This audio story was produced by Milton Guevara and edit by Jan Johnson. The digital story was edited by Erika Aguilar.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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