William Barr stirs the pot.

The attorney general announced a special counsel and shot down claims of fraud.
Isaac Saul Dec 2, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Attorney General William Barr shot down claims the election would be overturned and announced a new special counsel investigation.

Attorney General William Barr / Photo by: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Marshals

Thank you.

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Quick hits.

  1. Donald Trump has discussed preemptive pardons for his three children and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, according to a New York Times report.
  2. The United Kingdom became the first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine. The UK ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 20 million people, and distribution could begin before 2021.
  3. Health care workers and nursing home residents should be first to get a coronavirus vaccine in the U.S., a CDC advisory group said.
  4. A bipartisan group of senators struck a deal on a coronavirus relief package, but Congressional leadership remains in a stalemate with just days to strike an agreement.
  5. Donald Trump is already planning a run for president in 2024 and could announce his plans before inauguration day, according to Axios’s Jonathan Swan. Several advisors told Swan they expect the president to announce a campaign but never actually run.

A year ago…

We were talking about Donald Trump reopening negotiations with the Taliban, Pete Buttigieg’s support surging in the Democratic primary, and Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign “coming undone at the seams.” Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano had also made waves for saying House Democrats had enough evidence to impeach President Trump.


What D.C. is talking about.

William Barr. Yesterday, the United States’ attorney general — the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the country — made two major proclamations to the press. First, Barr told reporters that the Justice Department and FBI had been working to follow up on specific claims of voter fraud but he had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” directly rebuking the president’s claims. The comments were criticized almost immediately by Trump’s lawyers Jenna Ellis and Rudy Giuliani. Before the election, Barr had warned repeatedly that mail-in voting may be vulnerable to fraud, and throughout his term as attorney general he’s been a loyal ally of the president’s.

Barr also announced that he had appointed U.S. attorney John Durham as special counsel to investigate the beginning of the Trump-Russia probe. That means Durham will have the same power and oversight that Robert Mueller did when he was conducting an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. It also gives Durham the protection he needs to continue the investigation during the Biden administration, ostensibly insulating him from being fired by the incoming administration.

Barr picked Durham in May of 2019 to lead an investigation into the actions of the team investigating President Trump. So far, the investigation has led to one guilty plea from an FBI lawyer who admitted to altering an email in order to help obtain authorization for surveillance of a Trump campaign advisor. President Trump is frustrated that more details of Durham’s investigation were not released before the 2020 election, but the special counsel appointment means Durham is likely to go on conducting his investigation during the first year of the Biden administration.

The dual announcements immediately set off a flurry of reactions and opinion pieces.


What the left is saying.

The left is glad Barr made it clear there was no widespread election fraud and skeptical the Durham investigation will turn into anything. In CNN, Stephen Collinson said William Barr broke the “fever dream” of Trump’s post-election nonsense.

“Attorney General William Barr just dealt the most credible blow to Donald Trump's lies about a stolen election, precisely because he previously often came across more as the President's personal lawyer than a neutral arbiter of justice,” Collinson wrote. “Trump has suffered repeated and embarrassing defeats in court. Republican governors and secretaries of state have certified results that show he lost on November 3. And he has so far failed to stage an Electoral College coup. But Barr's admission Tuesday that his Justice Department has looked for significant voter fraud but has found none that would change the result is sure to be treated as a betrayal by a President who demands sworn fealty from subordinates.”

“Barr did offer the President a consolation prize by announcing that he had appointed prosecutor John Durham, who has been probing the origins of the Russia investigation, as a special counsel,” Collinson added. “This is no mere change of title: the designation means Durham will carry on his work during the Biden administration -- and becomes a political landmine primed by Barr for whoever the President-elect chooses to replace him.”

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait argued that the Durham appointment “is bad news for Trump.”

“Durham has spent more than a year investigating the investigators in a fruitless attempt to prove out Trump’s wild charges that the Obama administration illegally surveilled his campaign,” Chait said. “The Russia investigation has been turned inside out through multiple probes — by the Justice Department Inspector General, the Republican Senate, as well as Durham — and has produced barely anything of note. Durham can finish his search, and he’s unlikely to find anything worse than a handful of staffers neglecting to put cover sheets on their TPS reports…

“On the other side of the equation, Trump and his administration could be subject to any number of criminal investigations because — well, they’re a bunch of criminals,” he said. “Trump himself has already been implicated by the Justice Department for ordering Michael Cohen to violate campaign-finance laws (Cohen went to jail) and for committing numerous acts to obstruct the Russia investigation. DOJ rules prevented it from formally charging Trump while he served as president. The department has also charged Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas with crimes related to their shakedown in Ukraine, and Parnas is cooperating with authorities and has said his actions were personally ordered by Trump, who has met with him in several documented instances.”

In The Washington Post, David Von Drehle wrote that he had read every single court filing, and that the latest affidavits “have not turned up a single new provable allegation in three-plus weeks,” saying the “newest filings are mere regurgitations of the first, but longer and sloppier because no one is bothering to proofread them anymore.”

“Why pretend to pursue a case that you are not actually pursuing?” he asked. “Money. The phony legal effort is a tool cynically employed to separate Trump supporters from their cash. It’s working beautifully. According to published reports, Trump’s personal political action committee raised $170 million in November by squeezing donors to stop the (non)steal. That’s a lot of lettuce — more money than Trump was raising in recent months for his actual campaign. And here’s the beauty part for a man on the make: Most of those millions are Trump’s to spend essentially without limits.”


What the right is saying.

The feelings about Barr’s proclamation on election fraud are mixed, but the right is thrilled about the news of Durham as special counsel.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Barr can “take the heat,” and he’s sure to get some now that he’s stood up to Trump and his claims.

“Mr. Barr told the Associated Press that allegations of ‘particularized’ fraud, with some that ‘potentially cover a few thousand votes,’ are being explored. But President Trump is down by 150,000 votes in Michigan, 80,000 in Pennsylvania, and 20,000 in Wisconsin. As for the idea that voting machines were compromised, Mr. Barr said the feds ‘have looked into that, and so far, we haven’t seen anything to substantiate that’…

“In an election with 155 million votes, there are no doubt irregularities and maybe some fraud,” the board added. “But for Mr. Trump to win the Electoral College, he’d need to flip tens of thousands of votes in multiple states. We’re open to evidence of major fraud, but we haven’t seen claims that are credible. Now comes Mr. Barr, who has no reason to join a coverup. He likes his job. He wanted Mr. Trump to win. As the election timetable closes, Mr. Trump should focus on preserving his legacy rather than diminishing it by alleging fraud he can’t prove.”

Michael Goodwin said Barr’s announcement about Durham as special counsel “ensures there will be Russia probe justice,” saying Durham will continue “investigating how the Obama-Biden administration weaponized the FBI and Justice Department to spy on the Trump campaign.”

“The prospect that justice might be done for the dirtiest trick ever played in American politics helps restore a modicum of confidence in Washington. Thank you, Bill Barr,” Goodwin wrote. “The inclusion of the Mueller investigation into Trump as part of the scope is especially curious, suggesting the possibility there was wrongdoing by members of Mueller’s team that probed whether Trump colluded with Russia. In the past, Barr has disputed parts of the team’s report, saying it did not follow certain Justice Department guidelines, but has not raised the possibility of criminal conduct.

In a Fox News op-ed, John Yoo argued that Biden should stay true to past commitments and views on special counsels and stay out of Durham’s business — allowing the investigation to go on uninhibited.

“Conducting electronic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and deploying federal investigatory resources on false grounds is not only unprecedented (aside from President Richard Nixon in Watergate), but illegal,” Yoo said of the Trump-Russia investigation. “Biden is not just considering whether to hire some of the officials who may have started the unfounded Russia investigation. The president-elect himself may have personal involvement… The question is whether the Obama administration was simply duped due to incompetence or pursued the Trump-Russia investigation out of more nefarious, partisan motives. In appointing the special counsel, Barr has already reached the judgment that some criminal behavior may have occurred.”


My take.

The reaction to Barr’s comments about election fraud sends a chill down my spine. The Wall Street Journal editorial board and other conservative institutions that existed before Trump entered politics have been holding the line on reality — pointing out over and over again the absurd foundation many of these claims are being built on, and the obvious holes in the theories going viral online. The Journal’s editorial, in particular, is worth reading, as it knocks down the claims in the fewest sentences possible. But those institutions have little sway on the Republican base anymore, and the overwhelming reaction in the most active right-wing social media circles, as well as amongst the most loyal Trump supporters I communicate with, was not relief that the highest-ranking law enforcement official (and, by the way, a Trump loyalist) said there was no fraud substantial enough to change the election outcome. It was disdain for Barr.

Trump’s lawyers immediately released a statement claiming there “hasn’t been any semblance” of an investigation and denounced the Justice Department, run by Barr — a man Trump chose and who has been exceedingly loyal to him for the last few years. Then, Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security advisor who was recently pardoned after lying to the FBI, released a statement calling for Trump to “suspend the constitution,” initiate martial law, and create his own re-vote on the election. The post had thousands and thousands of shares in a few hours.

It’s hard to overstate how stupid and dangerous this stuff is, but I think I’ve done enough of that in this newsletter over the last few weeks.

What I will say is that I’m glad to see the Durham special counsel appointment. The left may be upset by it, and the right might be thrilled by it, but I think both sides should be happy to see him have some level of protection. The FBI abusing its investigatory powers is not new, and certainly not unique to people who were close to the Trump campaign. Perhaps one doctored email is all the investigation will turn up — perhaps not. Durham is one of the few people left in Washington D.C. who is well-respected and trusted by the right and left, and I for one want him to have all the space and time he needs to uncover whatever he’s trying to uncover.

It’s a rare thing in this country for law enforcement to be held accountable for misdeeds. Doubly so for members of the intelligence apparatus. If there’s something there, holding the intelligence branches accountable would be a good thing for the nation. As Chait noted, it’s quite possible the investigation unearths more unethical or criminal behavior from the Trump team, which wouldn’t be a surprise given the dirty players the president surrounded himself with during his campaign. As Goodwin noted, it’s also quite possible the appointment is because Durham has found criminal behavior on the part of Robert Mueller’s team or the FBI agents who were investigating Trump. The fact that we don’t know, and that Durham’s team has been nearly leak-free, inspires some confidence in their professionalism and conduct. Whenever his report is completed and released to the public, I’ll be the first to devour it with curiosity and an open mind.


Your blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

The left missed a story about Carter Page suing James Comey, Andrew McCabe and the FBI for $75 million in damages for illegal surveillance of him by the FBI.

The right missed a story about how Brazil’s rate of deforestation is at a 12-year high.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Why haven’t we heard more about potential foreign interference in our elections this time around? I’m surprised to see the focus go from Russian influence in 2016 to almost zero discussion about it for 2020. Have we made any meaningful changes since 2016 to prevent foreign governments from weighing in or have we just accepted it as part of life these days?

— Summer, Los Angeles, California

Tangle: Mostly, I think it’s because all the focus and attention has been on the Trump campaign’s ongoing claims of election fraud. Which is a shame, because the threat of foreign interference certainly hasn’t gone away.

To answer your question more precisely, it is critical to differentiate between influence and intrusions. What we saw in 2016 was a heavy dose of foreign influence — bot networks, leaks, fake campaign events, propaganda, all sorts of stuff that was designed to influence voter preferences and skew reality on social media. Our intelligence officials have blamed much of that influence on Russia, and said it was doing its best to help Trump.

What we didn’t see was any intrusions on the actual systems of voting — ballots being changed, machines being hacked or thrown offline, votes being corrupted, that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t possible.

This year, everyone from Facebook to Senate leaders was on the lookout for both influence and interference. So far, the election security experts involved in the effort to prevent both are being as clear as they can be that 2020 was far more “secure” — or free of both — than in 2016. Larry Norden, the director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s election reform program, struck a tone I think is appropriate.

“I will say that the idea that we can stop worrying about cybersecurity in our elections because we didn’t see a successful crippling attack against our election infrastructure strikes me as absurd,” he said. “To paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you don’t throw away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. We don’t have the luxury of fatigue on this issue.”

I actually got an interesting note from a reader who had a family member who was working on election day to spot potential intrusions by foreign actors — of which, according to the reader, there were quite a few. These attempts have been confirmed by other reporting, and Politico noted that the U.S. intelligence community is compiling “an authoritative account of foreign interference and influence efforts made during this year's election” — a report designed to explain how well our election defenses held up to these attempts. That report is coming thanks to a 2018 executive order which called for the intelligence community to produce a report within 60 days of the election.

The goal of the report is to create a regular reflection on the election, one that doesn’t look partisan in the future (this is in response to the 2017 post-election reports that indicated Russia “meddled” in our election in an effort to improve Trump’s chances). The same year that the executive order was signed, Congress also appropriated $380 million in funding to help states with election security. Congress also passed a bill that would deny entry into the U.S. for any foreigners who violate U.S. election laws.

And yet, many of the most sweeping election security bills died in Congress thanks to Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader. McConnell wouldn’t even take them up for a vote, arguing that they trampled on states’ rights to run their own elections. Democrats accused him of wanting Russia to interfere again as they had in 2016 to help Trump. But neither claim is particularly plausible.

Far more likely is that McConnell didn’t want to draw the ire of Trump, and thus the Republican base, by passing the bills. They would have been seen as validating the threat from Russia. In a dreadful twist of irony, one of those bills would have required states to use hand-marked paper ballots and conduct rigorous post-election audits automatically, which would have saved the president and the states he’s been suing over the last four weeks a lot of money and legal trouble had the bills been passed (they’re now jumping through hoop after hoop and spending millions to make these audits happen anyway). Another would have banned voting machines from being produced abroad and from ever being connected to the internet.

In other words, the bills would have preemptively buttressed our elections against all the wild claims the president is now making about how they could have been compromised.

While both Republicans and Democrats have warned of foreign interference, the two sides have disagreed on who the most dangerous major players are. Democrats point to Russia while Republicans point to Iran and China. The post-election autopsy will give us a glimpse of how the intelligence community is viewing those threats, but sadly it will almost certainly be followed by partisan finger-pointing after the fact.


A story that matters.

One of the top Georgia election officials lashed out at President Trump and his allies, saying claims of widespread voter fraud were leading to death threats against state workers and the innocent employees of some voting systems companies.

Gabriel Sterling, a Republican voting system official in Georgia, said Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s wife was getting “sexualized threats” on her phone, that people had intruded on Raffensperger’s property and waited outside in cars for him, that someone had tried to hack Sterling’s email, and that a 20-year-old contractor for a voting system in Gwinnett County had been targeted by someone who hung a noose and declared he should be “hung for treason.”

On Tuesday, Joe diGenova, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, also said former DHS cybersecurity expert Chris Krebs should be shot (diGenova later said he made the comments in jest). Sterling’s outburst in anger at the press conference comes as election workers across the country who have been caught up in baseless claims of fraud are being doxxed, threatened and forced into hiding.


Numbers.

  • 80,925,383. Joe Biden’s current vote total, as of this morning.
  • 74,071,770. Donald Trump’s current vote total, as of this morning.
  • $10 million. The amount of money Democrats have spent in Georgia since Nov. 3rd for attack ads on Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
  • 34.1%. The percentage of Americans who say they are “very worried” about COVID-19.
  • 12.1%. The percentage of Americans who say they are “not at all worried” about COVID-19.
  • 54.9%. The percentage of Americans who say they are “very worried” about the economy.
  • 3.5%. The percentage of Americans who say they are “not at all worried” about the economy.
  • 40%. The percentage of Americans who approve of President Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
  • 81%. The percentage of Republicans who approve of President Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

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Have a nice day.

A man in Missouri has gone from gang member to teacher of the year. Darrion Cockrell says he was raised by his grandmother after his dad was murdered and his mom struggled with addiction. But shortly after he joined a gang as a young teenager, his grandmother lost custody of him and the state moved to transfer him to a foster home for troubled youth. Cockrell’s teachers intervened, though, and he was eventually taken in by a combination of teachers and coaches who helped him get through high school. After graduating from college, he ended up getting a job as a physical education teacher near his hometown in Missouri, and just won the 2021 Missouri Teacher of the Year award for his community efforts during COVID-19. "I still can't believe it," Cockrell told Good Morning America.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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