Former Attorney General William Barr suggested Friday that the president who appointed him misled the Justice Department in its investigation of government records and classified documents Donald Trump stored at his Florida home after he left office.
For 16 months, Trump tussled with the National Archives and Records Administration and then the Justice Department when the agencies tried to hasten the return of the records from his Mar-a-Lago home. The dispute reached a crisis point Aug. 8 when the FBI searched the residence and found more presidential records and sensitive documents — despite a Trump attorney signing an attestation in June that no more material remained there.
“They jawboned for a year, they were deceived on the voluntary actions taken, they then went and got a subpoena, they were deceived on that — they feel,” Barr said in an interview on Fox News on Friday of the government's action in the case. “The facts are starting to show they were being jerked around, so how long do they wait?”
Barr also sided with Justice Department in saying that the documents belonged to the government, not Trump.
It’s unclear what was in the classified records taken by Trump or why he took them, and Barr said he couldn’t figure out what Trump’s motives were.
“I can’t think of a legitimate reason why” the documents were taken, Barr said, swiping at Trump’s defenders who said that he could declassify records en masse by mere verbal or mental fiat.
“I, frankly, am skeptical of this claim that 'I declassified everything,'” Barr said. “I think it’s highly improbable … if in fact he sort of stood over scores of boxes, not really knowing what was in them, and said, 'I hereby declassify everything in here.' That would be such an abuse, and — that shows such recklessness that it’s almost worse than taking the documents.”
Barr said that Trump's motion for a special master to review the documents taken at Mar-a-Lago was a "red herring" and a "waste of time," adding that he believed the search warrant was justified because “for them to have taken things to the current point they probably have pretty good evidence, but that’s speculation.”
But Trump lawyer Chris Kise said there needs to be an independent review of the information seized at Mar-a-Lago.
"I do not at all think this would be a waste of time," Kise said. "A special master would help identify the real issues, place those issues in the proper context and perhaps most importantly, give the American people greater confidence in the integrity of the process."
Barr’s criticisms of his former boss are notable after earning a reputation as a loyalist in 2019 when he led the Justice Department and relied on a controversial memo to avoid charging Trump with obstructing justice following the Mueller investigation into Trump's ties to Russia.
Barr, however, did appear to side to a degree with Trump’s legal defense, which partly seeks to cast the controversy as a records dispute gone awry.
“Given the fact this is a former president, given the state of the nation … and given the fact that the government has gotten its documents back — does it really make sense to bring a case as a matter of prudential judgment?” Barr asked.
“And that’s a question that I think will turn on how clear the evidence of obstruction or deceit is,” he said. “If they clearly have the president moving stuff around, and hiding stuff in his desk, and telling people to dissemble with the government, they may be inclined to bring that case. And, you know, there’s going to be differences of opinion whether that makes sense. But we really have to know the facts to see, you know, to make a judgment about that. I hope it doesn’t happen.”
Pointing to Barr's question about "prudential judgment," Kise said, "My answer would be no. we’re talking about an extraordinary step here: indicting a former president over the handling of information that he was fully entitled to access in the first place.”
According to the government, however, the issue at hand was that Trump was not lawfully in possession of the records, some of which needed to be stored in secure facilities because they were so highly classified.
Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich accused Barr of drawing attention to himself for profit.
“Bill Barr is desperately trying to salvage his underperforming book, and is willing to do or say anything that will get himself in front of a camera,” Budowich said.
Barr began to politically distance himself from Trump after the 2020 election when he stated publicly that the former president had no basis for claiming that widespread voter fraud cost him a second term. Barr also criticized Trump in testimony before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.
Following the riot, Trump departed the White House for Mar-a-Lago and brought along loads of classified records and documents related to his presidency that the National Archives sought in 2021. After Trump surrendered some boxes of documents to the agency that had classified records, NARA notified the Justice Department, which opened a formal investigation, subpoenaed Trump and then received more records in June from the former president.
Trump’s custodian of records at the time, Christina Bobb, signed an attestation guaranteeing that all responsive records had been given to the government, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter. But the Justice Department soon determined that wasn’t true, leading to the search warrant, according to legal filings made by the Justice Department.
The attestation Bobb signed was drafted by another Trump attorney, Evan Corcoran, who remains on the former president's legal team but could leave the team if he becomes a witness in the case. Neither could be reached for comment.
It’s unclear why Trump had the records, why he didn’t give them all back or why his representatives apparently misled the government. Trump's legal team has denied he lied about the records he possessed and instead described the imbroglio as a misunderstanding that went awry.
“We’ve characterized it at times as an overdue-library-book scenario where there’s a dispute — not even a dispute — but ongoing negotiations with NARA that has suddenly been transformed into a criminal investigation,” Trump lawyer Jim Trusty said in court Thursday.
Barr on Friday said it’s a unique situation, but he faulted Trump for that — not the government.
“I think the driver on this from the beginning was loads of classified information sitting in Mar-A-Lago,” Barr said. “People say this was unprecedented, well, it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club.”