Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Attorney General Barr Denies Claims Of Political Interference In DOJ


Attorney General William Barr says he is the one responsible for a series of controversial moves at the Justice Department. He talked yesterday with our co-host Steve Inskeep.


To allow for social distancing, we sat well apart. We were beneath the portraits of past attorneys general in a cavernous room suggesting the power of the office. Barr speaks quietly and laughs easily, although his actions generate passions. This week, a whistleblower was testifying before Congress about political interference in the sentencing of the president's friend Roger Stone. Barr dismissed the allegation as double hearsay.

WILLIAM BARR: He had no direct information. He had never talked to anyone involved in the decision, whereas I actually made the decision. I was the decision-maker in that case because there was a dispute. And usually, what happens is disputes, especially in high-profile cases, come up to the attorney general.

INSKEEP: Barr also defended dismissing the charges against Michael Flynn. The president's former national security adviser had pleaded guilty to perjury. This week, an appeals court supported the Justice Department's power to drop the case. Barr also defended last weekend's move to replace the U.S. attorney in New York. He was said to be investigating matters of interest to the president. The attorney general says it was simply a personnel move that the president had a right to make.

How do you answer a voter who sees a pattern here of continually upholding the personal interests of the president?

BARR: Well, I'd say that there is no such pattern. I would say that that is a media narrative that has been adhered to where things that happen all the time in the Department of Justice are misrepresented to the public and cast as somehow suspicious. And part of what the Department of Justice is about and the attorney general is about is ignoring the mob and the calls and the false narratives and doing in each case what they think is right, right and just for the individual. That's what I'm doing, and that's what I'll continue to do.

INSKEEP: Before his nomination to the job, William Barr wrote a now-famous memo. He said the president's power to supervise law enforcement was, quote, "illimitable," even when the case involves his interests. The Justice Department, he wrote, merely acts as the president's hand. Barr has also spoken up in defense of traditional values, which informed one of my questions. I asked about a speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame. He said the founding generation of this country were largely Christian and that religious morality still has a vital place in society.

Christianity has a particular view of human nature. What does it teach you that a president would do with completely unchecked power?

BARR: Well, the president doesn't have unchecked power. All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton said. So that's why we have a Constitution, and that's why, as I've given speeches about the presidency, I've pointed out that the real miracle of our - in Philadelphia was actually Article II of the Constitution.

INSKEEP: That's the part where the founders enumerated the powers of the presidency. Some histories say the founders, fearful of a king, created a restrained executive. Barr sees a powerful chief executive within limits.

BARR: What was unusual is they actually created a very strong office, but they hedged it in with a lot of limitations. It's not a king. It's four years. It's the only office elected by all the people of the United States, not just by a congressional district but by all the people. It has inherently limited powers, but in emergencies, such as war, it has broad powers.

And I have to say, Steve, one of the things that perplexes me about all these people who challenge me on the idea of executive power and its nature - they seem perfectly content to sit back and let governors, who are executives and have constitutions, make the most sweeping decisions about people's livelihood - basically, putting the entire population in home detention and telling people that they have to shut down their livelihood and their business. And they leave that to the discretionary decision of governors. And I haven't heard the media at all say, hmm, this is a pretty broad use of power. Where does it say in the Constitution they have that power?

INSKEEP: Barr is representing presidential power in a contentious election year, and as he does so, he's also focused on the last election. He has publicly questioned the 2016 investigation of the Trump campaign's links to Russia. He's appointed a United States attorney, John Durham, to examine the origins of that probe, and that leads to a question as the 2020 vote approaches.

Does the president have the power under the Constitution to tell you how the Durham investigation needs to come out?


INSKEEP: He has supervisory authority over law enforcement...

BARR: To tell us how the investigation comes out? I mean...

INSKEEP: How his report comes out...

BARR: An investigation of facts are - is an investigation of facts. I mean, even the president can't change facts.

INSKEEP: He can't tell you to have the report come out a certain way...

BARR: Well...

INSKEEP: ...Regardless of the facts?

BARR: No. I don't think he can. I mean, I think Durham is going to report the facts. But...

INSKEEP: So there is a limit on the president's interference in law enforcement, then?

BARR: Well, I've said...

INSKEEP: Underlying facts is what the limit is.

BARR: Yeah. I have said that if, for example, if the president directed an attorney general to indict somebody where there was no predicate, no probable cause and no basis for the indictment, that would be a grave abuse of presidential power. And no attorney general would carry that out and be worth their salt.

INSKEEP: What instruction, if any, has the president given you about assuring a secure election in 2020?

BARR: Well, our main focus has been, obviously, trying to insure against foreign influence. And so we have a very strong program, interagency program, trying to monitor efforts by foreign countries to influence the election. And I - you know, we're committed to trying to prevent that or, if we can't prevent it, at least alert the American people as to what's going on. Other than that, the Department of Justice always is concerned about election fraud.

INSKEEP: Some people noticed when you raised concerns about the security of mail-in ballots, as the president also has very loudly and said without evidence that there's a lot of fraud or can be a lot of fraud. You raised a specific concern about foreign entities counterfeiting ballots and mailing them in.

BARR: I think there's a - well, I think there's a range of concerns about mail-in ballots. And let me just clarify here - I'm not talking about a mail-in ballot for a limited number of cases where somebody, you know, is going to be traveling around the world, and the way the state has provided for that is you mail in your ballot. I'm talking about a comprehensive rule where all the ballots are essentially mail-in, and there's so many occasions for fraud there that cannot be policed. I think it would be very bad. But one of the things I mentioned was the possibility of counterfeiting.

INSKEEP: Did you have evidence to raise that specific concern?

BARR: No. It's obvious.

INSKEEP: It's obvious that it can be done.

BARR: Of course. We go to a lot of - why do you think we go to the problems we do in crafting single dollar bills?


BARR: Because make it hard to counterfeit. Now...

INSKEEP: Do they not also go through procedures like that with mail-in ballots?

BARR: Have you seen them? They're pretty primitive.

INSKEEP: Are you able to share any evidence that intelligence agencies have gathered that any foreign entities have targeted this area?

BARR: I think foreign entities are - I have specific reason to believe that there are a number of foreign countries that do want to sow discord in the United States by undermining confidence in the results of the election. And I think if we do adopt programs of mail-in, that will be an area which they will exploit. And I think you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that an election conducted mainly by mail can be secure?

BARR: Personally, no.

INSKEEP: On mail-in ballots, the attorney general faces pushback. The secretary of state of Washington state, who's Republican, invited Barr to see for himself how her state conducts mail-in balloting securely. He told us he'd be happy to call her. This was one part of an interview that was as wide-ranging as Barr's job.

Can I ask about one more thing that's on my mind? You were asked about systemic racism the other day in law enforcement, and you said, if I may summarize briefly, it's not really there. It was at one time. It was on the books. It was part of the law. The laws have been removed, and there are still problems, but law enforcement is working on that. And yet, statistically, just to pick one statistic, a Black man in the United States, statistically, is far more likely to be shot by a police officer than someone of a different race. Why do you think that is?

BARR: Well, there are 8,000 Blacks who are killed every year. Eighty-five percent of them are killed by gunshots. Virtually all of those are Blacks on Blacks. The statistics on police shootings of unarmed individuals are not skewed toward the African American. There are many whites who are shot unarmed by police.

Now, those numbers, as I said, have been going down in the past - five years ago was 38 African Americans who were unarmed were shot by police, 38 in the year. This past year was 10. Of those, six were physically attacking the police when they were shot. So these are not events that happen every day. I know the media is very interested in them because everyone is interested in them, but...

INSKEEP: Yeah. The public - I've already seen - my mom is interested.

BARR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: I mean, lots of people are interested.

BARR: Well, everyone's interested in it, but - but I think the media, you know, is ignoring the fact that 8,000 African Americans are killed by crime in high-crime areas. And 10 were killed last year by police, six of whom were under attack when they shot. So you have to put it in perspective. And that's why, you know, I think it is wrong to demonize all the police and all the police departments as, you know, systemically racist and going out looking to shoot unarmed Black men. Usually, most of the - I've seen some cases where it appeared gratuitous, and obviously, those are serious cases and are pursued by the Department of Justice as civil rights violations. So I think you have to put these in perspective.

INSKEEP: Attorney General, thank you so much.

BARR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: William Barr spoke to us yesterday. By the way, there is no federal database of police killings, but we checked, and Barr's numbers seem roughly correct. A Washington Post database found that in 2015, police did kill 38 African Americans described as unarmed. Last year, according to the Post, the number declined to 14.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM GENDEL AND SAM WILKES' "BOA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.