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:
Another state hitting new highs for coronavirus cases this week is Georgia. It's remaining open. And while Georgia fights the pandemic, it's also reckoning with the deaths of two Black men, Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. To talk about how the state is handling these two crises at once, we called up the state's Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.
Thanks for being here.
GEOFF DUNCAN: Yes. Thank you for the opportunity.
SHAPIRO: So on Tuesday this week your state recorded 1,872 new coronavirus cases - as we said, a record number for the state. Do you think the state opened back up too soon?
DUNCAN: I don't. I don't think that's the case. I mean, certainly, you can't just open a book and see exactly what to do and when to do it. You know, look. This continues to be so valuable for individuals to, you know, practice social distancing to the best of their abilities, to, you know, set up best practices inside of businesses. We're going to continue to take great strides in that direction.
SHAPIRO: And yet the record number of coronavirus cases suggests that there is a crisis that needs to be addressed. How would you suggest the state address it?
DUNCAN: Well, I think we continue to make sure that we understand hot spots. I think that was a huge lesson learned by all 50 states. But we know that when we flood the zone with messaging, with PPE, with hospital resources and ventilators and all of the other tools and resources that we've learned over the last three months, that that absolutely is an imperative step.
SHAPIRO: You talk about social distancing and best practices. One of those practices that health experts recommend is wearing a mask. Ten percent of the state Senate tested positive for the virus before the session suspended in March. And when the Legislature reconvened this week, masks were not required. Why not require them?
DUNCAN: Well, from my purview as the president of the Senate, I get to look across the body. And almost without exception, as I view the senators, they were masked. Almost all of the staff was as they came up and presented their bills. I'm very proud of the Senate. I'm very proud of their great work in the last 11 legislative days.
SHAPIRO: So you're saying masks are voluntary in the Senate. Do you think there should be a requirement?
DUNCAN: Well, no. Certainly, I feel like the senators have taken it serious, and an overwhelming majority are wearing the masks for an overwhelming majority period of the time. I feel like we're operating in a safe manner already.
SHAPIRO: Let's pivot to the racial justice movement in your state. The Georgia Legislature has passed a hate crimes bill. More than 40 states already had these laws. Why did it take the killing of Ahmaud Arbery to motivate Georgia to pass one?
DUNCAN: So actually, your numbers are - there was 46. And I'm proud to now no longer have to be referred to as a state that does not have a hate crimes bill on the books. It was one of the best examples of bipartisanship and teamwork I've ever been involved in.
SHAPIRO: You say you're proud of the bill, but to the question of why now - earlier this year, you did not take a stance on the hate crimes bill yourself. What made you decide to champion it at this moment?
DUNCAN: Yeah. Certainly, there's a sense of urgency. The absolute tragedies that have played out all across the country - they've been brought into our living rooms, including mine, sitting on a couch with my three kids, trying to explain to them what was happening and what were the remedies.
SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're saying you went through an education process with your family, with your kids, seeing what was happening in the state. What did you tell your kids? How did you explain it to them?
DUNCAN: Well, we walked through it, and that was a great example of the General Assembly. You know, every day, you know, my kids wanted to see what the progress was. And my oldest son asked the day that we passed the bill out of the Senate - tapped me on the shoulder early that morning and said, can I go to work with you? And so I was able to have my oldest 18-year-old son, who's going to go off to college, be by my side, watching us pass what no doubt will be a story told way longer than anybody will ever remember me.
SHAPIRO: As you know, this is also an election year, and primary voting in Georgia earlier this month was a mess. There was chaos, long lines, faulty machines - all problems that the state had been warned about well in advance. Now, with less than five months until the general election, what can realistically be done to make sure this doesn't happen again in November?
DUNCAN: Well, I think it's important to understand the issue, right? I mean, you mentioned some incredibly strong talking points, but I don't know if those necessarily are deep enough to understand the issue. As you know, elections aren't just about the state. They're about the counties. They're about the county election offices. And they're about the secretary of state. So it's making sure those people go in the room like every business does. And I really think that what we've seen is this really comes down to training. Training is executed from state resources but also at the county level.
SHAPIRO: You don't think the faulty machines that the state was warned against buying and spent millions of dollars on anyway had anything to do with it.
DUNCAN: Well, you obviously have researched that particular point, but I would urge you to actually come and talk to the folks that are here understanding that it's the training in a number of these sort of situations. If there's faulty equipment, I'm certain that the equipment will be dealt with. I will point you to an overwhelming majority of the counties did not report any sort of issues. And so that's a great starting point to make sure that we understand the best lessons learned forward.
SHAPIRO: But as you know, there was a racial divide between the counties that did have problems, majority Black, and the counties that did not, majority white, which exacerbates the issues that people across the country are protesting right now.
DUNCAN: I think the greatest starting point for all of us is to make sure that every voice is heard and every person has an opportunity to vote that shows up to the polls. And we're going to continue to make sure that happens.
SHAPIRO: Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, thank you for joining us.
DUNCAN: Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.