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Former Attorney General Bill Barr says Jan. 6 grand jury activity suggests prosecutors "taking a hard look at the group at the top, including the president"

Barr on Jan. 6 grand jury, future of GOP
Barr calls Jan. 6 subpoenas "significant," says nominating Trump would be "really bad" for GOP 07:05

Former Attorney General Bill Barr called the newest federal grand jury subpoenas probing the Jan. 6, 202, Capitol riot "a significant event," one that suggests that government prosecutors are probing high-ranking Trump administration officials and allies, and even former President Donald Trump.

"This suggests to me that they're taking a hard look at the group at the top, including the president and the people immediately around him who were involved in this," Barr told CBS News' Catherine Herridge in an interview Friday. 

The grand jury has been meeting weekly; in late July, Marc Short, former Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, testified, and according to The Washington Post, Greg Jacob, Pence's chief counsel, was also interviewed by the grand jury.

The Justice Department's criminal investigation into Jan. 6 now includes questions for witnesses about the communications of people close to Trump and his reelection campaign, though it is not evident from CBS News' reporting that Trump himself is a target of the investigation — only that that prosecutors have been asking questions related to him and his aides.

Barr also surmises that it looks like prosecutors are "going to try to get a ruling on the issue of executive privilege," given reports by ABC News and other news outlets that former White House counsel Pat Cipollone has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury. The former attorney general noted that Cipollone, as then-counsel to the Office of the President, "has the strongest claim to executive privilege."

"That's sort of the biggest mountain for them to climb, and the fact that they lead off with that to me suggests that they want a definitive resolution — not only on Cipollone — but you know, this would affect [former White House chief of staff Mark] Meadows and some of the other people, too," he said. 

While Barr thinks that Trump might be able to block some testimony with an executive privilege argument, he said, "I don't think it would block all the testimony." He ticked off a list of ways in which a privilege argument "is inapplicable here."

"One argument," he said, "is that it was waived by Biden and it will have to be litigated — whether Biden can do it or whether Trump can do it." 

The former president's lawsuits to shield documents or testimony with privilege arguments have so far been rejected by the courts, on the grounds that the requests have been valid and the privilege was Mr. Biden's to waive.  

Barr also pointed out that executive privilege does not apply in criminal cases.

"Another argument they have is that that the criminal justice process, as opposed to Congress — the criminal justice process — executive privilege has to give way — you can't hide behind it when a criminal grand jury's involved," Barr said. 

"And then they would have other arguments, like the crime-fraud exception," Barr told Herridge. "If it's part of the crime itself, it's not covered." 

"And and another argument they would have is that some of the particular things weren't really executive privilege," Barr said. "The president was acting in his capacity as a candidate, not not the president." 

Nonetheless, Barr suggested that if the case against Trump turns out to be essentially what the Jan. 6 committee has revealed, it's probably not enough to convict the former president.

Though he thinks the evidence has been building, after the last Jan. 6 hearings, "if this is what there is, as attorney general, I still don't see that as a sufficient basis to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed by the president." Barr said he believes the Justice Department is still "getting deeper and deeper into it," and if Attorney General Merrick Garland finds a crime, he'll prosecute.

The former president has been strongly suggesting he'd like to run for president again in 2024. His 2016 campaign manager and former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Herridge last week that Trump is eager to announce he's running again and in fact would like to have been in the race "already."

Barr feels optimistic about the future of the GOP. "I think the future's bright for the Republican Party," he said, suggesting that the GOP could even hold the presidency for the next 12 years.

"I view 2024 setting up another 1980, where when Reagan won two terms and then Bush won a third term," he said. It's what he believes is necessary "to make America great again, you know — decisive victory in reaction to the excesses of the progressive Democrats."

But it's not Trump who would deliver that, says Barr. "I don't think he should be the nominee," he said of Trump. "I think it'd be really bad for the party, and I don't support him as the nominee." 

As the former attorney general put it, if Trump won, he'd be a "78-year-old lame duck who's obviously bent on revenge more than anything else."

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