AP’s lead Justice Department reporter scores a major scoop in an exclusive interview with U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
It may have been the punctuation point that put the end to the lie that the Nov. 3 presidential voting was invalidated by widespread fraud. AP Justice Department reporter Mike Balsamo, with an exclusive interview, reported that William Barr, the U.S. attorney general who had defended President Donald Trump countless times before, could find no evidence of widespread voting fraud, undercutting Trump’s insistence to the contrary.
The news flashed around the world and resonated for days.
Balsamo has spent months cultivating sources at the Justice Department, as a neutral and balanced reporter who can deliver news in a way people on both sides of the political divide accept. His relationships paid off in a huge way. Although Justice’s U.S. attorneys and FBI agents had been working to follow up specific complaints they’d received, Barr told Balsamo: “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
The Dec. 1 statement was a direct contradiction to Trump and his allies who have kept up baseless arguments about a rigged election, despite the electoral college tally and popular vote loss to Democrat Joe Biden. The story rocketed to the top of the news cycle and no one could match it. Trump’s attorneys immediately protested, and Barr attended a previously scheduled meeting at the White House later that day. It lasted three hours.
The Poynter Report wrote: "There was lots of breaking news Tuesday, but one story mattered most of all."
The New York Times and Washington Post both did push alerts and credited Balsamo’s scoop in their front-page stories. CNN cited the AP on-air, as did NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox. Hundreds of papers used the story in print and online. It had 1.6 million pageviews and 460 customer uses in one day alone.
How did the interview with Barr come about? Balsamo said in an email, “I’ve worked really hard to cultivate a relationship with the AG and his closest advisers that I think, quite frankly, no other reporter has. I’ve interviewed him more than anyone else who covers DOJ, I think in part because they feel AP’s reporting is accurate and fair. And it has paid off repeatedly.”
For weeks, Balsamo had been pressing Justice Department officials for a sit-down with Barr, who had reduced his public events around the time of the election as questions swirled around mail-in voting and election vulnerabilities and around reported tension between Barr and Trump. Then came a message the Monday after Thanksgiving: “Can you be here tomorrow at noon?”
“It wasn’t clear going into it that morning whether Barr would dive in on the election and if he did engage, what he would say,” Balsamo recalled. “There were a few things I wanted to address.”
Then Barr made his statement.
“I knew when he said the department had found no widespread voter fraud that would change the outcome of the election, he had made probably the biggest news he has in his tenure as AG.”
But the interview did not stop there. It also revealed that U.S. Attorney John Durham, who has been conducting a criminal investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, had been quietly appointed by Barr weeks earlier to be a special counsel, meaning the investigation couldn’t easily be shut down when Biden comes into office. And just before they wrapped up, Barr made a little more news, saying he planned to schedule more federal executions before he leaves office, and he believes a Biden Justice Department should continue carrying out those death sentences.
“I knew ... he had made probably the biggest news he has in his tenure as AG.”
— Mike Balsamo, AP lead Justice Department and federal law enforcement reporter
Barr refused Balsamo’s repeated requests to allow AP video into the interview. After he left their meeting, however, Balsamo himself did an on-camera debrief for AP about his remarkable scoop. He also appeared on several networks.
For persistent, evenhanded reporting on the Justice Department beat resulting in the interview that netted one of AP’s most consequential news coups of the year, Balsamo wins AP’s Best of the Week honors.