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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

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Bill Barr Discusses Free Expression, Political Division, and Democracy at IOP Event

Bill Barr weighed in on threats to the First Amendment, Trump’s grasp on populist anger, and the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Provided by the Institute of Politics.
A screenshot from the Institute of Politics recording of Former Attorney General Bill Barr.

Former Attorney General Bill Barr spoke about free expression, his tenure as attorney general under the Trump administration, and the January 6 attack on the Capitol, during an Institute of Politics (IOP) speaker series event at Ida Noyes Hall on October 26. The event was moderated by CBS News Chief Legal Correspondent and UChicago Law graduate Jan Crawford.

Barr served as the United States attorney general for President George H. W. Bush’s administration from 1991 to 1993 and again for President Donald Trump’s administration from 2019 to 2020.

“The most clear and present danger to democracy is the undermining of our First Amendment values,” Barr said. “It’s critical for our society to have open and robust debate, and that’s what IOP stands for, so I was happy to attend.”

Turning the attention to his memoir, One Damn Thing After Another, Crawford asked Barr to explain the book’s title. He told the story of a conversation between Reagan-era Attorney General William French Smith and Ed Levi, a previous Republican attorney general, during which Levi described the job of the attorney general with the phrase “one damn thing after another.”

“I thought it was an excellent description of my tenure as attorney general,” Barr said. “It’s hard for me to believe that there were more trying circumstances, at least in recent history, than trying to serve in this administration, given the political climate.”

Barr had also been warned against working with Trump by colleagues.

“I was under no illusions; I knew it was going to be tough duty. I didn’t know him personally, but I’d worked up in New York…I had been on some boards with people who knew Trump very well, including people who had worked in the Trump Organization. And all along, they were saying ‘this guy is bad news,’ ‘don’t go near him,’ and so forth and so on. I learned a lot about him that way,” he said.

Barr explained that he chose to serve as the Trump administration’s attorney general because he was a lifelong Republican and was “very comfortable with Trump’s policies.” His decision was also influenced by his belief that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were “critical institutions.”

“I thought his administration was potentially being sabotaged, and there was an effort to essentially run him out of office with this bogus ‘Russiagate’ thing,” Barr added. “Also, I was very upset by what was happening at the Department [of Justice], it was in turmoil. It was being attacked from both sides, both Republicans from the Hill, Democrats, and so forth. It was dysfunctional…I know the Department pretty well, and I felt, someone has to come in there and deal with this, who understands the Department.”

Although working alongside Trump was often difficult, Barr said that “[Trump is] not the devil incarnate,” describing him as having “some good characteristics. He can be charming and pleasant and friendly, and so forth.”

“But he’s a very manipulative person,” he added. “I quickly recognized that as long as he thinks he’s getting his way, he’s fine, but if you’re not giving him the advice he wants…he will try to figure out ways of getting around it, and you won’t necessarily know what’s happening.”

Barr provided examples of this aspect of Trump’s leadership, including the events of January 6. Since Trump “wasn’t getting the answers he wanted from the people in the government,” he contended, “he created this little ad hoc Keystone Cops operation, which led to January 6.”

Regarding the events that led to his resignation, Barr stated that on December 1, 2020, he told the Associated Press that the DOJ had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”

Barr described a particularly heated discussion on election fraud with Trump in the Oval Office in which he explained that the examples the former president cited did not demonstrate fraud. Trump abruptly accepted Barr’s resignation but later, two lawyers, including the White House counsel, persuaded Barr to stay so long as he did not blindside them.

About two weeks later, on December 14, the day that the states sent the certified votes to the Congress, Barr felt that “there could be no more mischief” and decided to write a letter of resignation.

“Up until the election, I didn’t have any major problem with Trump. We got along okay, and I was fine with the policies, and we defended the policies, and we won,” Barr clarified. He rejected the notion that the Trump administration was “lawless.”

During the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, Barr remembered turning on the television and seeing the “sickening spectacle,” specifically pointing to “the attacks on the police.”

“One of the things I wondered is, ‘was this actually coordinated?’…I wondered, ‘were people actually involved in orchestrating this thing in order to delay the vote?’ I think that’s a legitimate question to ask,” Barr told the audience.

Speaking about a possible Biden versus Trump presidential election in 2024, Barr said, “I don’t want to be faced with a choice between those two individuals.”

“It’d be a tight race, probably. But Biden is making it much easier for [Trump] to win if he’s the nominee, with the incompetence of his administration, in my opinion.”

Crawford then asked Barr why Trump’s actions on January 6 are not disqualifying to his voter base.

Barr responded, “I am stunned by it. But what’s happening is that a lot of the voters, conservative voters, a lot of working-class voters, who have recently come into the Republican Party, are very angry…and I think this is reflected in their attitude, which is sort of, ‘The hell with you all! We need someone to really shake up the system!’”

Asked by Crawford if he believed Trump was “losing it” based on his recent comments praising Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, Barr said, “His verbal skills are limited. If you get him away from ‘very, very, very,’ the adjectives…are unfamiliar to him, they sort of spill out, and he goes too far,” referring to Trump’s frequent use of the intensifier “very.”

President Trump has since criticized these remarks by Barr on his social media platform, Truth Social.

Crawford then asked about what she sees as growing political polarization on college campuses and how Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign could exacerbate these divisions.

“It’s not all about Trump. Trump is a symptom, I think, rather than the cause. And I think the decisive development in our society over the past couple of decades has been the decisive move of the Democratic Party to the left, and the left wing of the Democratic Party to the far, far left,” Barr said, adding, “and there’s a level of condescension and elitism, condescension to the average American, that started this anger.”

Barr expanded on this latter point, saying that many Republicans had also lost touch with the lives of ordinary Americans.

“I’ve always been comfortable with the idea of some element of…populism in the Republican Party,” he said. “I think what’s happened is that we’ve had leaders who have essentially used that to gain power on both the left and the right, used that anger on the left and the right and inflamed it, and you know, we’ve been getting more polarized.”

“I would put the blame squarely on the left for getting the ball rolling here,” he continued.

“The threat to free speech didn’t come from the right,” he argued. “It came, in my opinion, from the left, and was manifested in universities, in all the usual ways, by taking things off the table.”

“People couldn’t get jobs. If people said, ‘there are two genders,’ all of a sudden, they’re fired. That’s a threat to the First Amendment, and that kind of thing…really got under the skin of a lot of average Americans. They thought it was crazy,” Barr said. “That’s how someone like Trump got into the picture, and he certainly made the most of it.”

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