The Buried Lede in Jon Karl’s Flattering Bill Barr Story: Mitch McConnell Was Willing to Risk American Democracy to Save the Senate

Lots of people are buzzing today about Jon Karl’s piece in the Atlantic in which Bill Barr portrays himself in standing up to Trump and his claims of election fraud. As is typical in pieces where people from Barr world are sources (in this case Barr himself), this paints Barr in the best possible light. The piece does not even mention how Barr put forward outrageous and ludicrous statements about voter fraud before the election, suggesting that foreign governments would be mailing in thousands of absentee ballots. Barr continues on his rehabilitation tour.

But that’s not the part of the story I want to highlight. It is about how Mitch McConnell utterly failed in squelching the Trump voter fraud claims because he was trying to preserve his Senate majority. Like George W. Bush, McConnell could have recognized Biden early as the winner of the election, and that would have helped to push down the now-crazy claims about 2020 election fraud. As I explained at Slate on November 8, after Fox and other networks recognized Biden as the winner: “The one group that has not spoken up yet, and that is crucially important for acceptance of election results, is the rest of the Republican congressional leadership, beyond McCarthy. For example, on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to weigh in on Biden’s election, pointing to an earlier statement about letting the vote counting and legal process play out. Other senators have taken different tacks: Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski congratulated Biden, and some 2024 aspirants, such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, ridiculously mimicked Trump’s unsupported voter fraud claims.”

Here’s what Karl tells us about Mitch McConnell’s calculations after Trump refused to concede:

Barr told me that Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell had been urging him to speak out since mid-November. Publicly, McConnell had said nothing to criticize Trump’s allegations, but he told Barr that Trump’s claims were damaging to the country and to the Republican Party. Trump’s refusal to concede was complicating McConnell’s efforts to ensure that the GOP won the two runoff elections in Georgia scheduled for January 5.

To McConnell, the road to maintaining control of the Senate was simple: Republicans needed to make the argument that with Biden soon to be in the White House, it was crucial that they have a majority in the Senate to check his power. But McConnell also believed that if he openly declared Biden the winner, Trump would be enraged and likely act to sabotage the Republican Senate campaigns in Georgia. Barr related his conversations with McConnell to me. McConnell confirms the account.

“Look, we need the president in Georgia,” McConnell told Barr, “and so we cannot be frontally attacking him right now. But you’re in a better position to inject some reality into this situation. You are really the only one who can do it.”

“I understand that,” Barr said. “And I’m going to do it at the appropriate time.”

On another call, McConnell again pleaded with Barr to come out and shoot down the talk of widespread fraud.

“Bill, I look around, and you are the only person who can do it,” McConnell told him.

As Quinta Jurecic put it: “Maybe I’m being too critical here or there’s context missing, but this reads like … the senate majority leader asking the attorney general for political help in an upcoming election. Not great!”

But it’s even worse than that. McConnell knew Trump’s claims were bogus and endangering the country. And he refused to speak up because he put politics before country.

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