Updated at 8:44 p.m. ET Thursday
Attorney General William Barr said Thursday that he doesn't believe President Trump has overstepped the boundaries between the White House and the Justice Department in a number of big recent cases.
Barr told NPR in a wide-ranging interview that he believes Trump has "supervisory authority" to oversee the effective course of justice — but Barr said that ultimately, the choices were made and carried through independently by the Justice Department.
"It's very important that the attorney general make sure that there's no political influence at stake involved in that — and there wasn't," Barr said.
NPR's Steve Inskeep asked Barr about the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, in which the Justice Department dropped charges even after Flynn's guilty plea; about the firing of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in New York City; and about others.
Barr faulted what he called "irregularities" in the Flynn case that he said made it appropriate for him to resolve it by scrapping the prosecution. And he denied that there was anything suspicious about the replacement of Berman, including any connection to ongoing investigations that might involve associates of Trump.
"Anytime you make a personnel move, conspiracy theorists will suggest that there's some ulterior motive involved," Barr said.
Unproven mail fraud theory
Barr also defended his recent comments in which he claimed without evidence that foreign countries could potentially counterfeit "millions" of mail ballots to interfere in the November presidential race.
It's a claim that a number of election officials and experts have rejected, calling it "preposterous" and "false." State officials of both parties have pushed for increased access to mail ballots in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But on Thursday, Barr doubled down, calling mail-ballot security processes "primitive."
When pressed on whether he had evidence to suggest such a plot was underway by foreign adversaries, the attorney general said that he did not, but that his department had evidence of foreign countries being interested in interference more broadly — and that he thought mail voting was an obvious target.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out," Barr said.
Skeptics among elections specialists point to the dozens of aspects of each jurisdiction's mail ballots that would need to be replicated for an attack of this nature to work: from the bar code, to the weight of the paper, to the successful forgery of voters' signatures.
"It shows a fundamental lack of understanding about the soup to nuts of administering an election," said Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College. "You can't just source the paper, re-create the ballot styles, fake the signatures, on any kind of mass scale."
Barr, who voted by mail in 2019 and 2012, according to The Washington Post, said that he supports mail voting in isolated situations but that he does not believe broad expansion is possible without significant fraud and mistakes. Most election officials disagree.
"Election officials spend a great deal of our time building in security measures," said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, this week when asked about Barr's claims. "The idea that people could print millions of ballots either within the country or external to the country, just on its face, is not going to pass muster with an election official."
Fears about antifa
Barr also defended on Thursday his thesis that recent protests over police brutality against Black Americans have been infiltrated and overrun by antifa agitators.
Barr and Trump have repeatedly painted antifa as a criminal, far-left anarchist organization, blaming its adherents for some instances of violence and looting during recent protests for police accountability.
NPR reporting found no sign of antifa links so far in cases brought by the Justice Department, but Barr reiterated Thursday that antifa is more of an "umbrella term" and that protesters who identify as antifa would have been charged with specific actions like throwing a Molotov cocktail.
The attorney general also defended police amid the ongoing protest movement about law enforcement in Black communities.
"The statistics on police shootings of unarmed individuals are not skewed toward the African American," he said. "There are many whites who are shot unarmed by police."
While white people account for a higher number of unarmed fatal police shootings, Black people, who make up about 13% of the U.S. population, are disproportionately affected. Of the 352 unarmed people shot and killed by police in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2015, white people accounted for 145 of the deaths; Black people made up 123 of those killed, according to a compilation of fatal police shootings by The Washington Post.
On the subject of the coronavirus pandemic, Barr once again criticized state governors for implementing strict mitigation protocols in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, accusing those leaders of abusing their power and compromising citizens' livelihoods.
"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," Barr said.
Barry Gordemer, Connor Donevan, Courtney Dorning and Matt Kwong produced and edited the audio version of this story.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Attorney General William Barr is at the center of the news this week, as he so often is. He's defending some of his recent moves in an interview with NPR.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Barr was the president's choice to run the Justice Department. He made headlines last weekend when he replaced Geoffrey Berman, a U.S. attorney in New York. Berman is believed to be investigating people close to President Trump.
SHAPIRO: Before Congress yesterday, a whistleblower claimed top officials interfered for political reasons to recommend a lesser sentence for the president's friend, Roger Stone.
MCCAMMON: And in an appeals court yesterday, Barr's Justice Department prevailed in dropping charges against Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser.
SHAPIRO: Barr has pursued an expansive view of the president's power, which has made him a hero to many conservatives and a target of fierce criticism. In a cavernous room at the Justice Department today, he sat with our colleague Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: In every case, was it appropriate to intervene at the highest levels in what was being done and what personnel did it?
WILLIAM BARR: OK, well, all cases in the Department of Justice are subject to the supervision of the attorney general. In fact, all the powers carried out by the department are vested in the attorney general, and it's appropriate for the attorney general to exercise supervisory authority over cases. So starting with the Flynn case, you know, Flynn was entered into a plea agreement before I arrived. It had been there for a long time, and because of legal squabbling, the sentencing didn't come up until after I was attorney general. And he had a new lawyer, and she raised a lot of claims, including misconduct by the government. So I brought in somebody who had been a former FBI agent for 10 years and a prosecutor for 10 years. And I asked him to take a look at it, and he recommended that the charges be dismissed.
INSKEEP: What I'm driving at is the underlying power here. There's nothing inappropriate about you getting so involved in a case involving a friend of the president. Is that your view of the law?
BARR: Well, what I'm saying is - well, Flynn was an appointee in the administration. I don't know whether I would refer to him as a...
INSKEEP: Someone that the president...
BARR: ...Friend of the administration. But the - you know, unless there's some conflict of interest that I have, it is appropriate for me to deal with it. And I've said publicly that in those cases, it's very important that the attorney general make sure that there's no political influence at stake involved in that. And there wasn't.
INSKEEP: Is there no limit to what the president can do in exercising what you've described as a supervisory authority when it comes to law enforcement cases, even when he has an interest?
BARR: You know, I've testified about this a lot. I think at some point, in certain circumstances, presidential action could amount to an abuse of his power, yes.
INSKEEP: Let's take a case that, according to a witness before Congress yesterday, sounded like an abuse of power. Prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who said he was a whistleblower, said that in the Roger Stone case, he received pressure to change the sentencing recommendation in a way that he considered inappropriate. And he said he was told by his supervisor that was because of political pressure, because of a fear that the president would be displeased if another course was taken.
BARR: Right. Well, the supervisors have said that much of what he said was simply false. So...
INSKEEP: He named his supervisor - J.P. Cooney.
INSKEEP: He said that?
BARR: The statements he made, he said, were - he admitted were double hearsay. 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.
And what actually happened in that case is the four prosecutors who had prosecuted the case, the first line, they wanted to recommend a seven to nine-year sentence on Stone. And the U.S. attorney felt that was too severe and was not justified under the circumstances. I made that decision based on what I felt was fair to that person - never discussed sentencing with the president. And that decision was made well before the president's tweet about that case.
Now, you know, regardless...
BARR: Regardless of his relationship with the president, he doesn't deserve a break, but he certainly doesn't deserve to be treated more harshly than everyone else.
INSKEEP: You have indicated that the appropriate limit on a president's power is the people, is the next election; that the president has supervisory authority over law enforcement, that he can involve himself in a case even if he has an interest in the case. And the appropriate remedy is the people can vote him out or keep him. What do you say to voters thinking about how to vote this year who see these cases and see a pattern of a president who continually wants to interfere and actually does appear to interfere in cases where he has an interest?
BARR: Well, I would say, take aim (ph) one at a time. There was a lot of hinky stuff in the Flynn case. Everyone knew that. Everyone was wondering, why was this case ever brought? We actually went back and found documents that showed there were a lot of irregularities in what the FBI did. So I would say that justice was - is being done in that case. I would also say that the same is true in the other case you mentioned, the Stone case. He got the sentence that everyone else would have gotten for that conduct. That's justice. That's the rule of law, treating like people alike. And, you know...
INSKEEP: Just to go to the third case, what was the reason for removing Geoffrey Berman, other than the fact that the president had an interest in it?
BARR: Well, that's a personnel action, which, of course, is different. You know, in the criminal justice process, as I've made clear, it's very important that politics be kept out of that. Now, in this other matter, which is a personnel appointment, obviously, all U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president and can be removed by the president. Geoffrey Berman was interim. He was appointed by the court as a temporary U.S. attorney holding the fort. He was living on borrowed time from the beginning. And when a really strong, powerful candidate raised his hand - that is Jay Clayton, currently the chairman of the SEC, very well-known and highly regarded - I view that as an opportunity to put in a very strong person as a presidential appointment to that office.
INSKEEP: Did you consider the possibility that some might find that inappropriate, given the matters that Mr. Berman was investigating and the president's interest in those matters?
BARR: I certainly was aware that, given the current environment, anytime you make a personnel move, conspiracy theorists will suggest that there's some ulterior motive involved. But I felt this was actually a good time to do it because I was not aware of anything that should, in reality, give rise to that.
INSKEEP: And let me circle back to that big question. 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.
There was a Democratic senator who said that, you know, being the attorney general is like being a sheriff standing in front of the jail. There's always the mob - and these days, the media is very prominent among the mob - who either want someone hung, or they want them sprung. 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.
INSKEEP: Because you mentioned equal justice, can you name a case or two where you have intervened so dramatically where the person involved was not connected to the president?
BARR: Off the top of my head - I'm sure there are a number of cases since I've been here that I've done that.
INSKEEP: You can't think of one but...
BARR: Well, a frequently case - you know, we don't go discussing who's under investigation at any given time.
INSKEEP: OK. But you're saying there are other cases where you have personally involved yourself in...
BARR: Yes. When cases come up, who do you think they come to? And why do you think we have one attorney general? We run a department that looks across the whole country to make sure people are treated equally. You can only do that if you have one office that's responsible for that, and that's me.
SHAPIRO: That's Attorney General William Barr speaking with Steve Inskeep. And we'll hear more of their conversation on tomorrow's Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.