So when former staffer Larry Kudlow interviewed former Attorney General William P. Barr for his Fox Business show on Thursday, the conversation ran on shared assumptions about Trump’s successes and the toxicity of the left. Politics. The result was that Barr described a remarkable hierarchy of importance for actions that could have affected the results of a presidential contest.
Russian interference in 2016, he said, was “just a few embarrassing emails about Hillary Clinton and Bernie.” The effort to “delete” information on Hunter Biden’s laptop, meanwhile, was “probably even more outrageous” and “had far more effect on an election.”
That’s a remarkable statement to make.
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Let’s start first by ruling on the central premise of Barr’s claim — a central premise, in fact, of much of the political conversation on the right right now: that the media conspired to withhold information about the ‘laptop.
This claim depends almost entirely on two factors beyond the control of the media.
The first is that the decision of social media companies to limit the sharing of the story is confused with the decision of news outlets not to cover it. Barr does so explicitly, telling Kudlow that “mainstream media and social media acted together and in parallel to suppress any information about” the laptop. It’s not true. Social media companies and the media were suspicious of the laptop’s provenance (about which questions remain), especially given the Russian effort in 2016. This prompted Twitter and Facebook to shut down the sharing of the original story by the New York Post – a decision that is certainly questionable on its merits.
The distrust shown by the media was different: the story was difficult to validate. The laptop came to the New York Post through Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who explicitly told the New York Times that he chose the paper because other media would look at it first. ‘story. Giuliani first reported the story to Fox News, in fact, but the network reportedly forwarded it specifically because of questions about the credibility of the laptop.
It’s important to note that once The Post’s story ran, it did not share the laptop’s hardware with any other outlets. This was the second factor beyond the media’s control: it’s hard to cover something based on second-hand information alone. Much of the recent chanting about how the Washington Post and New York Times finally wrote that some of the material was legit is based solely on the fact that we only recently got some material to verify.
Either way, the story was covered by both The Post and The Times on several occasions in the final weeks of the election. We had an excellent explainer compiled by our fact-checking team, outlining what was known and what was unclear; it became one of the most widely read fact checks of the newspaper in history. Granted, the story didn’t get much coverage on CNN and MSNBC, certainly compared to Fox News and Fox Business. The network that covered him the most after these two? Russia today.
Barr acknowledges none of this. Instead, he told Kudlow the information was no longer being suppressed because “they’ve already accomplished what they wanted to accomplish”: President Biden won.
“They talk about foreign bots and efforts to use social media by foreign governments,” Barr continued. “It had a lot more effect on an election, none of that. You have studies showing polls showing that one in six Biden supporters would not have voted that way.
To say that the “study” cited by Barr here is garbage is rude to garbage. It was not a study but a investigation, led not by some sort of reliable or objective entity, but by a right-wing organization, Newsbusters, focused on portraying the mainstream media as biased and unreliable. The survey included questions like this to reach its conclusions:
“At the time you voted for President, did you know that there was evidence, including banking transactions that the FBI is currently investigating, that directly links Joe Biden and his family to a corrupt financial arrangement between a Chinese company having ties to the Chinese Communist Party which was secretly intended to provide the Biden family with tens of millions of dollars in profits?
This “question” includes all sorts of unverified claims, but it’s actually irrelevant. The point is, this survey was simply an effort to gauge how people would have voted if they were basing their vote solely on overstated and inaccurate positive claims about Trump and overstated and inaccurate negative claims about Biden. No serious person should take this as insightful — especially anyone who at one time was in charge of federal law enforcement.
Barr’s claim that the “suppression” of the laptop story was worse than Russia’s effort in 2016 also hinges on diminishing what happened in 2016. That’s central of Barr’s recent worldview, the idea that concerns about Russia’s actions were grossly exaggerated and that the investigation itself was nothing more than a “dirty campaign trick”, as he told Kudlow.
By now you have had many opportunities to evaluate such claims. If you want an assessment of this particular claim, made recently by Trump, here you go. What’s important about Barr’s framing here, however, is why it’s offered. Yes, the impact of the Russian effort on social media has been greatly exaggerated. But to downplay the “hack and dump” (as Barr put it) that has seen thousands of emails stolen and released by WikiLeaks as merely “embarrassing emails” is dishonest or misleading. The emails that were slowly released in October 2016 shaped an enormous amount of media coverage in a way that was both outsized and impossible to dismiss as unimportant. The laptop’s initial story alleged a meeting that Biden’s camp quickly denied, and additional Post reporting after the election added little. part of the reason the story wasn’t very successful: there wasn’t much to the story.
What Barr’s conversation with Kudlow really makes clear, however, is how reactionary his politics are. “America was crossing the abyss with the progressive march that was happening with Obama,” Barr told his former colleague, Trump taking “a goal-line stance…that stopped that.” If Trump had lost in 2016, he later added, “it would be 30, 40 years of radical, progressive jurisprudence like the kind of nonsense we see in the transgender field.” At another point he asserted that “the whole idea of ’awakening’ and those impassables [racial] shortcomings is simply a lie.
This necessarily colors everything else he says. He is not an impartial arbiter of what should and should not be done in the countryside. He’s a very conservative person who sees Russian interference as unimportant (except as a way to attack Hillary Clinton) clearly in part because the outcome in 2016 is what he wanted: Trump won. In 2020, however, the “removal” of laptops was unconscionable – as he believes it cost Trump.
At another point in his conversation with Kudlow, he made a remarkable statement.
“You have things like Zuckerberg,” Barr said, referring to a nonprofit-funded group formed by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg that has invested in voter turnout efforts. “Same thing. I don’t know if it was legal or not, but it unfairly skews the playing field.”
Aside from the former attorney general claiming it may have been illegal to lead an effort to get the vote — a claim that would seem to require some sort of proof — it’s bizarre to say it ‘skews the playing field’ . The effort was focused on getting legal voters to vote! This is exactly what campaigns do for months before Election Day. But the difference here is that someone was applying resources that would likely end up producing more Democrats, and that’s what infuriates Barr, Kudlow and their allies.
(I’ve written about this, but, in short: low-income voters tend to vote less often and, therefore, are often deprioritized by systems intended to facilitate voting. They also tend to vote more heavily. Thus, nonprofit groups that try to increase turnout by increasing campaign resources often end up getting more Democratic votes; sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.)
Barr has hinted at a lot of things before, so it’s not like he’s opening up just because he trusts Kudlow. But it seems that in this scenario — sitting on Fox Business, talking to another Trump alum, and feeling the need to defend his loyalty to Trump — he offered an honesty he could have kept elsewhere in reserve.
It was certainly revealing.