Attorney General William Barr just dealt the most credible blow to Donald Trump's lies about a stolen election, precisely because he previously often came across more as the President's personal lawyer than a neutral arbiter of justice.
Trump has suffered repeated and embarrassing defeats in court. Republican governors and secretaries of state have certified results that show he lost on November 3. And he has so far failed to stage an Electoral College coup.
But Barr's admission Tuesday that his Justice Department has looked for significant voter fraud but has found none that would change the result is sure to be treated as a betrayal by a President who demands sworn fealty from subordinates.
Barr's comments to the Associated Press on the election -- which stated what every objective observer knows to be true -- were such a big deal because they reflect the extent to which Trump and his aides have shattered Washington's democratic guardrails.
By contradicting Trump's fever dream over vote fraud, Barr, in the end, balked at being the President's modern version of his firebrand New York attorney Roy Cohn.
His decision represented a final failure of Trump's often successful attempt to weaponize the Justice Department as a personal and potent political weapon. Try as he might, Trump has never found a fixer equal to his former New York retainer Cohn, the notorious mafia lawyer and McCarthy-era aide for whom loyalty to his clients meant a willingness to break any rule.
Barr's political heresy came on a day when it also became clear that the President's exit from the White House will be accompanied by the same clouds of scandal, constitutional chicanery and politicized legal gambits that shaped the most disruptive presidency of modern times.
Barr did offer the President a consolation prize by announcing that he had appointed prosecutor John Durham, who has been probing the origins of the Russia investigation, as a special counsel. This is no mere change of title: the designation means Durham will carry on his work during the Biden administration -- and becomes a political landmine primed by Barr for whoever the President-elect chooses to replace him.
The risks inherent in Trump's continued denial of reality and claims that the election was corrupt -- which are eagerly embraced by his followers -- are becoming increasingly clear in the strain imposed on GOP election officials.
Gabriel Sterling, the voting systems implementation manager at the Georgia secretary of state's office, issued an emotional appeal on Tuesday for the President to denounce threats faced by election officials.
"It's all gone too far," said Sterling, a Republican.
"Someone's going to get hurt, someone's going to get shot, someone's going to get killed, and it's not right."
But at a White House Christmas Party on Tuesday night, that featured little social distancing on a day more than 2,400 Americans died of Covid-19, Trump again claimed falsely that he had won the election and mused about "another four years" in office, either now, or after the 2024 election.
Focus on last-minute pardons
Several extraordinary stories also came to light on Tuesday, relating to the flurry of self-serving pardons that the President is expected to grant before January 20, that epitomized corruption cloaking his White House.
A number of Trump's associates are appealing to the President in the hopes of obtaining pre-emptive pardons before he leaves office, including his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, sources told CNN. New York's former mayor denied the claims that were first reported by The New York Times.
And in another wild development, unsealed court records show that the Justice Department is investigating the possible funneling of money to the White House or related political committee in exchange for a presidential pardon.
Given the political immorality and grift that has surrounded a White House plagued with flagrant conflicts of interest from day one, these are unlikely to be the last such revelations before Trump leaves office in seven weeks.
'We have not seen fraud ...'
Barr, who had in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer before the election backed Trump's claims that mail-in voting was not secure, gave the impression that he looked for mass fraud but couldn't find any.
"To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election," Barr told the AP in remarks that directly contradicted Trump's claims the presidency was stolen.
One immediate knock-on effect of the attorney general's remarks will be to make Republican Senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who refuse to refer to Joe Biden as President-elect, look even more disingenuous.
Barr has taken repeated steps during his second tenure at the Justice Department that appear calculated to prioritize Trump's political goals while furthering his own vision of expansive presidential power.
In his most notorious move, Barr delivered a misleading summary of special counsel Robert Mueller's report before the investigation into the Russia scandal was released publicly, causing its author to protest. The attorney general echoed the President's anger at coronavirus lockdowns, calling them, apart from slavery, "the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history."
Barr also asked for the Justice Department to take over the President's defense in a defamation lawsuit filed against him by Jean E. Carroll, who accused him of sexual assault. And he ordered his prosecutors to dismiss charges against Trump's first national security advisor Michael Flynn, who has since been pardoned by the President.
Despite offering such service to the President, there have been signs that Trump has been becoming ever more frustrated with Barr. He lashed out against the attorney general before the election, complaining he had not indicted Obama-era officials for their role in the Russia investigation.
The tension suggested that for all of Barr's apparent moves to placate Trump and his clear sympathy with the President over the Russia investigation in particular, he remained within the lines of evidence and legal procedure on the issue of election interference.
In so doing he became the latest member of the US legal and national security establishment to frustrate the President's power grabs. Those figures include former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who angered Trump by recusing himself from the Russia probe and prompted the President to ask, "Where's my Roy Cohn?" according to a New York Times report.
Events of the post-election period, show that the role of Cohn is in fact being played by another New Yorker, who is not allowing evidence or facts get in the way of his conspiratorial defense of the President: Giuliani.
A new special counsel
Barr's decision to invest Durham with the powers of a special counsel to continue investigating whether intelligence and law enforcement officials broke the law in investigating the 2016 Trump campaign came as a surprise.
He said in an order that the move was in the "public interest" and that Durham should submit a report to the attorney general when he was finished -- presumably the Justice Department head that is nominated by Biden.
The decision sparked concern over more political interference, since the ongoing investigation will allow Republicans and conservative media commentators to whip up the impression of alleged scandal from the first day of the Biden administration. It will also permit Trump, who is showing every indication of continuing his political involvement when he leaves office, to maintain his conspiracy theories about the so-called Russia "witch hunt."
Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, accused Barr of using the special counsel law "to continue a politically motivated investigation long after Barr leaves office."
"Having politicized the Department of Justice from his first days in office, it is a fitting coda that Barr should seek to do so in his last," the California Democrat said in a statement.
But Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who, like Barr, has come under fierce pressure from the President to investigate the original Russia probe, offered a preview of how he might leverage Durham's role during the Biden administration.
"To restore credibility to the Department of Justice and FBI after this disgraceful episode, people have to be held accountable -- either through criminal prosecution or administrative action," Graham said.
The Durham controversy was quickly overshadowed by the revelations about presidential pardons.
A source familiar with the matter said Trump associates broaching the subject of preemptive pardons that would seek to shield them from prosecution includes Giuliani, who has been leading the President's long shot legal battles to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in his role as Trump's personal attorney.
Giuliani denied discussing a preemptive pardon with the President, telling CNN that the "(New York) Times is completely wrong." He further denied he has talked to anyone at the White House about a pardon for himself. Speculation is also rampant that the President will offer blanket pardons to members of his family and even himself, in what would be a constitutionally dubious maneuver.