The Memo: Trump’s newfound critics invite skepticism
Former Vice President Mike Pence says he was “proud” to certify the 2020 election results.
Former Attorney General William Barr says he knew former President Trump’s claims of election fraud were “bullshit.”
And former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will come out with a new book later this year arguing that the Republican Party needs to push back against conspiracy theories and grievance politics — a clear shot at Trump and his most hardcore MAGA fans.
The pattern is clear. People who were once closely aligned with Trump are pushing away from him.
But skeptics have a simple question: Why now?
Pence was a loyal vice president for four years, despite numerous, tumultuous controversies.
Barr, who is now portrayed as clear-eyed about Trump’s post-election fictions, came to the president’s aid on the Mueller report and also buttressed Trump’s thin pre-election claims about a lack of security regarding mail-in voting.
Christie, who ran against Trump for the 2016 GOP nomination, helped the president prepare for last year’s debates against President Biden. Just two months ago, Christie told Sean Hannity of Fox News that he would give Trump an A-grade for his performance in office.
The contrast between then and now means plenty of people look askance at the new claims of dissent or independence.
On Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told Joy Reid of MSNBC that the revelations about Barr — contained in a new book by ABC’s Jonathan Karl — needed to be weighed against the fact that “I don’t think there’s anyone in the modern history of the Justice Department who has done more damage to that institution.”
Others put it more sharply.
Robert Reich, who served as secretary of Labor under former President Clinton, wrote on Twitter that Barr’s law license should be suspended. CNN legal analyst Elie Honig used Barr’s own term against him, tweeting that the former attorney general’s attempt “to launder his image is straight bullshit.”
Meanwhile, Trump himself rails against what he clearly sees as a betrayal by Barr. In a statement on Tuesday, the former president blasted him as “Slow Moving Bill Barr … a ‘swamp creature’ who was devastated when the Radical Left wanted to impeach him.”
Somewhere in the middle, there are people who take a more nuanced view, partly from personal experience.
Olivia Troye served as homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to Pence before resigning in August.
Troye says she had growing misgivings that came to a head around the time demonstrators protesting the killing of George Floyd were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square in front of the White House.
The moment, she told this column, “was so incredibly dangerous and offensive that to me it screamed of ‘autocracy’ and ‘dictator.’ I had heard discussions about the Insurrection Act. I know how close we came. I thought, ‘I just cannot get past it.’”
Troye is torn on the more recent moves by figures like Barr, Christie and her former boss, Pence.
On one hand, it is “important for these stories to be out there so people hear firsthand how dangerous this situation was,” she says.
But, on the other hand, “I have less sympathy for them, because I feel like they were going along with it through Election Day — and then the train goes off the tracks. But the train was going off the tracks before that — you could see it.”
For Barr’s skeptics, his cooperation in a journalistic account of how staunchly he stood up to Trump is a straightforward effort to launder his reputation.
For figures like Pence and Christie — and other Republicans who might be considering running in future elections — the calculation is more complicated.
Anyone who is seeking the GOP nomination cannot afford to alienate the Trump base entirely.
Pence, in the speech where he recalled his pride at certifying the election results, also drew a positive parallel between Trump and the late President Reagan. Both had “disrupted the status quo,” he said.
It seems a generous assessment, given pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6 were heard chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”
Many Republicans do not want to stay completely shackled to a president who lost the White House after one term and who also saw the House and Senate slip from GOP control during his tenure.
“People are trying to put Trump in the rearview mirror and they are thinking about what the Republican Party is going to be, how the Republican Party is going to fare in the next midterms and the presidential election,” said one GOP strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
“We have former Trump administration officials who are trying to clean up their record of service within the administration. They are trying to clarify what they did or didn’t do in order to continue to have professional careers,” the strategist noted.
John “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime Republican operative in Florida and a Trump critic from the beginning, argued that it seems unlikely for now that Pence or Christie could become the GOP nominee in 2024. But the political atmosphere can change unexpectedly, he acknowledged.
“Those guys are probably positioning themselves to be in the right place in a different universe,” he said.
Troye, now the director of the Republican Accountability Project, says there is one saving grace for people, such as Barr, who come out late in the day. Their words, she hopes, might yet help quash Trump’s fictions about the election.
“There is a whole population out there that still believes the election was stolen. And here is Trump’s own attorney general saying flat out that was bullshit,” she said.
“We can say he is trying to preserve power or his own reputation — those are fair criticisms,” she added. “But those people need to hear it from Trump’s attorney general, and need to hear that it’s bullshit.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.