WASHINGTON — Attorney General Bill Barr got slammed by former prosecutors and Constitutional lawyers for playing a pivotal role in President Trump’s favor during the dying days of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
He may have just done Trump another massive solid in the Ukraine whistleblower scandal, which now threatens to consume the White House.
Barr’s intimate involvement in the new scandal spilled out into public view on Wednesday, with vivid details that enraged Democratic members of Congress and left former prosecutors worrying openly about the Department of Justice’s increasingly battered reputation.
Barr’s DOJ didn’t just provide the original legal rationale for withholding a whistleblower’s complaint from Congress, despite a law saying it should be handed over immediately. The department also cleared Trump of any potential violation of campaign finance law resulting from Trump’s appeal to Ukraine for information that could be useful to Trump’s 2020 campaign.
“It’s as if the department’s only job is to protect Trump. They should change their name to the Department of Cover-up”
And Barr’s DOJ made those decisions despite the repeated appearance of Barr’s name in the now-infamous phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s President Zelensky, a fact that critics argue should have led Barr to recuse himself from the whole affair.
“This is all just absolutely outrageous,” said Nick Akerman, a former member of the 1970s-era Watergate prosecution team into former President Nixon’s administration. “It’s as if the department’s only job is to protect Trump. They should change their name to the Department of Cover-up.”
Democrats, who announced an official impeachment inquiry against Trump on Tuesday, have begun to train their ire on Barr in the wake of Wednesday’s revelations about the depth of his involvement.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler called on Barr to step away from matters concerning the Ukraine scandal. Democratic Presidential hopeful Julian Castro called for an investigation into Barr’s conduct, to be led by the DOJ’s inspector general.
This is hardly the first time Barr has taken flak for appearing to provide cover when his boss was facing Congressional investigation over questionable ties to a foreign power.
Barr played a key role in limiting the political fallout from Mueller’s final report on Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign and potential obstruction of justice.
After Mueller filed his final report to Barr last spring, the AG released his own brief summary of Mueller’s conclusions which downplayed the severity of the special counsel’s findings on potential obstruction of justice. The Barr version of Mueller’s findings hung out in the public sphere for weeks before Mueller’s actual report was made public.
Once it was revealed, Mueller’s report presented evidence that over 1,000 former prosecutors have said would have resulted in obstruction charges against basically anyone else, although Mueller himself deliberately stopped short of reaching any conclusions about whether Trump broke the law.
Barr himself cleared Trump of the crime of obstruction, without ever really explaining his legal rationale in detail, and leaving many legal observers unconvinced about the impartiality of his reasoning.
Barr also earned a reputation for acting as a presidential shield during his first run as Attorney General to former President George H. W. Bush during the early 1990s, helping to push through presidential pardons for indicted senior officials.
“If you want a presidential cover-up, Barr is your guy,” former prosecutor, James Brosnahan, who had been gearing up to prosecute one of those officials three decades ago, told VICE News earlier this year.
Barr and Giuliani
During Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, he repeatedly said the Ukrainian president would be hearing from both Barr and also his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Trump’s fluid references to both men suggest he views Barr, the country’s top legal official, as fulfilling a similar role to that of Giuliani, his defense attorney, said Joseph Moreno, a former federal prosecutor.
“It’s inappropriate in both directions,” Moreno said. “It’s as if he’s pulling the Attorney General into a discussion about the fate of a private citizen, and bringing in his personal lawyer to essentially conduct foreign policy.”
The department vigorously denied on Wednesday that Barr had any role in actually following up with Ukraine after Trump’s call.
Barr only learned about the call weeks after it took place, a spokesperson said.
“The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son,” she said. “The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine — on this or any other matter.”
But now, as Democrats’ impeachment inquiry kick into high gear, Barr may soon find himself having to do more to explain his actions than simply issuing denials.
Cover: President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr announce the Trump administration's effort to gain citizenship data during the 2020 census at an event in the Rose Garden of the White House on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)