WASHINGTON – As President Donald Trump sows doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, he’s found a powerful partner in Attorney General William Barr.
Like Trump, Barr has repeatedly sounded alarms about the November vote despite a lack of evidence pointing to pervasive problems with the process.
That’s important — and worrisome to Democrats — because Barr is no ordinary Cabinet member. As head of the Justice Department, he can shape investigations into election interference and voting fraud. Though the department doesn't oversee elections, it could inject itself into court fights over disputed contests. And any statements from America’s top law enforcement officer questioning election results could further shake public confidence in the vote at a time of widespread disinformation and rumors.
“Those who think that Barr is watching over the interests of Trump rather than the interests of the country have reason to be concerned that he would weaponize the Justice Department’s investigative authority to help Trump at least politically, if not legally, in any post-election challenge,” said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
Concerns about Barr among Democrats and election experts outside the department are heightened because he is seen as a loyalist to the president, as well as an ardent defender of broad executive power and a passionate critic of the FBI’s Russia probe.
Barr’s comments, most recently in a CNN interview Wednesday, have been consistent with efforts by Trump and his campaign to attack mail voting as rife with fraud and to potentially lay the groundwork for lawsuits challenging election results. The attacks have continued even though research contradicts the idea of pervasive fraud in the vote-by-mail process and even though intelligence officials say they don’t have information to suggest some of Barr’s gravest concerns, like adversaries printing counterfeit ballots, are close to becoming reality.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Barr “has pledged again and again to make decisions according to the law and facts, without regard to political considerations.” Barr has also said he will abide by longstanding Justice Department policy against taking any investigative steps, including prosecutions, designed to affect the outcome of an election.
There are important limits on the Justice Department's potential impact on an election. The federal government, for instance, doesn't administer elections and many core voting functions, like tallying ballots, are handled at the local or state level.