Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN
(CNN) — It’s hard not to view these two data points as symptoms of a democracy that is sick and in need of immediate attention:
- The US government is putting its former president on trial for a conspiracy to subvert the democratic will of its people in 2020 even though he knew he lost. Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty during his first court appearance in that case Thursday.
- A new CNN poll finds a sizable chunk of Republicans and more than a third of the country still don’t believe the 2020 election outcome is legitimate.
The criminal case could well hinge on whether Trump can be proven to have known he lost the election, as his official advisers all told him.
Whatever he knew in his mind, Trump continues to focus on creating more than a shadow of doubt about US elections, especially when they feature him.
This has helped lead a solid majority of Republican and Republican-leaning independents to doubt that President Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in 2020 was legitimate. The number of doubters in the GOP has been as high as 72% in CNN’s polling in 2021. Today, the figure is solidly at 69%. Among registered voters who voted for Trump in 2020, 75% say they have doubts about Biden’s legitimacy.
There is a scale of doubt, for sure. A smaller portion of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, 39%, both doubt the election was legitimate and think there is solid evidence to prove it. No evidence of widespread voter fraud has ever been uncovered despite exhaustive reviews and court challenges.
Overall, 61% of Americans say Biden did legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency, and 38% believe that he did not. Read more about the new poll from CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta and Ariel Edwards-Levy.
When people don’t believe the system is creating a valid winner, it raises very real questions about whether the system is showing cracks.
One man’s mission to stop Trump may not preclude a vote for Trump
With that, consider a remarkable interview Wednesday night with one of the minority of Republicans who completely believes the overwhelming evidence that the election was legitimate.
Bill Barr was the attorney general under Trump and says the former president should not be anywhere near the Oval Office. A frequent target of Trump’s insults, Barr praised elements of the indictment against him and said he believes Trump knew he lost the election even as he was trying to overturn it.
Despite all of that, Barr told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins he has not ruled out voting for Trump. Read the entire interview here, or read some key excerpts below. I’ve paraphrased the questions by Collins in order to condense the length.
Is this a strong case?
Barr said he has concerns about the indictment of Trump related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election: It’s complicated, it requires proving things that may be difficult to prove, it does nothing to counter the perception on the political right that there is a double standard at the Justice Department, it’s going to be a distraction from the 2024 election, the outcome could affect that election, etc.
BARR: “But as a legal matter, I don’t see a problem with the indictment. I think that it’s not an abuse. The Department of Justice is not acting to weaponize the department by proceeding against the president for a conspiracy, to subvert the electoral process.”
What about the argument that Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment right by questioning the election?
BARR: “No, I really don’t think that’s a valid argument, because, as the indictment says, they’re not attacking his First Amendment right.
“He can say whatever he wants. He can even lie. He can even tell people that the election was stolen, when he knew better.
“But that does not protect you from entering into a conspiracy. All conspiracies involve speech. And all fraud involves speech. So, free speech doesn’t give you the right to engage in a fraudulent conspiracy.”
Did Trump know he lost the election?
BARR: “Do I personally believe that? Yes, at first, I wasn’t sure. But I have come to believe that he knew well, that he had lost the election.
“And now, what I think is important is the government has assumed the burden of proving that. The government, in their indictment, takes the position that he had actual knowledge that he had lost the election, and the election wasn’t stolen through fraud. And they’re going to have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Is there more evidence than what’s in the indictment?
BARR: “Oh, yes, I would believe (special counsel Jack Smith) has a lot more. And that’s one of the things that impressed me about the indictment. It was very spare. And there are a lot of things he could have said in there. And I think there’s a lot more to come. And I think they have a lot more evidence, as to President Trump’s state of mind.”
Why do you think Trump knew he lost the election?
BARR: “No. 1, comments from people, like (Steve) Bannon, and (Roger) Stone, before the election, saying that he was going to – he was going to claim it was stolen, if he was falling behind, on election night, and that that was the plan of action.
“I find those statements very troubling. And then, you see that he does that on election night.
“And then, the evidence that has come out since then, the press reports, and the indictment, and his lack of curiosity, as to what the actual facts were, just leave – that’s my personal opinion. That’s my personal opinion. And we’ll see if the government can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Should this case be tried before the 2024 election?
BARR: “Well, the paramount question has to be fairness to the defendants, the fairness of the process.
“And I think it goes – I think there are arguments to be made, both ways, as to whether it should be first, or whether it should come afterwards. Of course, if he’s elected president, then coming afterwards would be meaningless.”
What do you make of Trump using contributions from political supporters for legal bills?
BARR: “Yes, I find that sort of nauseating. I mean, this guy claims to be a multibillionaire. And he goes out and raises money from hard-working class, hard-working people, small donors, and tells them, ‘This is to defend America, and to take care of the elect’ – he didn’t provide any significant support during the 2022 elections. And a lot of this money seems to be going to his legal fees.”
Is there a double standard at the Justice Department?
BARR: “I think that the department tends to go far more aggressively after Republican or allegations of Republican wrongdoing, than Democrat. And I’ve seen it myself. I’ve lived through it. I’ve seen it.
“Now, it’s not as pervasive as is represented. And it’s not automatic. And I think there’s still many, many great prosecutors in the department who can check their politics and be fair to whoever it is, regardless of their politics.
“But I do think that there’s some political actors in the department.”
Would Trump weaponize the Justice Department if he won the presidential election?
BARR: “Absolutely. And that’s why I think it’s so ironic all these people are getting huffy about weaponization, which they should, because we can’t go tit for tat.
“But Trump, as you say, I mean, he’s very clear about it. I think there’s no question that he believes these institutions should be used to go after his enemies.”
What do you think of Trump’s personal criticisms and innuendo he spread about Smith?
BARR: “To me, it’s amazing that you read through the indictment and his behavior in that indictment. And it’s nauseating, it’s despicable behavior.
“Whether it’s criminal or not, someone who engaged in that kind of bullying about a process that is fundamental to our system and to our self-government shouldn’t be anywhere near the Oval Office. And for him to be attacking a prosecutor who is investigating that with all the epithets, and so forth, which he has no basis for, as far as I can tell, is ridiculous.
“Now, he’s an aggressive prosecutor. He’s the kind of prosecutor, in my view, that if he thinks someone has committed a crime, he hones in on it, and really goes to try to make that case. There’s no question he’s aggressive. But I do not think that he’s a partisan actor.”
Why won’t you rule out voting for Trump in 2024? You’ve already said he should not be near the Oval Office
BARR: “My view is that if you feel that one of two people is going to be president, in other words, there’s no third option, one of two people are going to be president – then, at that point, you have to do your soul searching as to which one you think would do least harm to the country. And that’s the analysis that I would do.”
Why is Biden unfit for office?
BARR: “Look, there are Democrats that I think are honorable people, and whose policies I don’t think are extreme and so forth.
“But I think Biden has turned the keys of the kingdom over to radical progressives. And in terms of his personal ethics, I think there’s some red flags there that I think people should be paying attention to. I don’t think he’s morally superior, necessarily, to Trump.”
Are you doing interviews like this to make sure Trump is not the nominee?
BARR: “Yes, I mean – yes. Because I think the Republican Party has a great opportunity. When you look at our states, like Florida, Georgia, Virginia, we have conservative governors who are winning substantial victories, broadening the party, bringing people in.
“And I think that can be done, on the national level, by any of our candidates, but Trump. Trump has already shown that he cannot forge that kind of decisive victory at the national level. He’s a three-time loser. And I think he will clearly lose again on the national level.”
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