WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller might’ve wrapped up his two-year investigation into President Trump, but he’s left a dozen investigations running in his wake, at least one of which could pose serious problems for the president.
Or maybe not. All are now in the hands of Attorney General William Barr — the man Democrats accuse of acting as President Trump’s defense attorney instead of the country’s top law enforcement official.
That dynamic has left Democrats clamoring for Barr to recuse himself from those probes, a call Barr has flatly refused — raising questions about whether Barr could play a role in diverting any investigation spawned from Mueller’s work that veers too close to Trump.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin voiced this concern after Barr’s fiery testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
But there's little in the regulations that suggest Barr must recuse himself, or is even supposed to consider doing so, former prosecutors and legal experts told VICE News.
“Barr could put his foot on the brake for these Mueller referrals, and there doesn’t seem to be much Congress could do about it,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who specializes in the federal judicial system.
Barr’s track record of running interference for presidents under investigation — both now and 30 years ago — raises yet more questions about his impartiality in handling these additional cases.
“Barr could put his foot on the brake for these Mueller referrals, and there doesn’t seem to be much Congress could do about it.”
“Given what he’s said about the Mueller investigation, I think you really have to wonder about that possibility,” Tobias said.
Children of Mueller
Mueller’s probe looked specifically into Trump’s links to Russia and obstruction of justice. But his final report revealed that Mueller’s team uncovered evidence of criminal wrongdoing in 14 matters outside that scope that he referred to other officials.
Of the other matters Mueller raised the alarm on, 12 remain completely secret, having been turned over to other prosecutors or the FBI.
But one appears to directly implicate Trump: The case against Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, who violated campaign finance law on Trump’s behalf by setting up hush-money payments to women who claimed they’d had sex with Trump.
Cohen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail for actions taken “at the direction of” Trump, according to both Cohen himself and written filings by federal prosecutors based in New York.
That matter is now under the supervision of Barr, who could, in theory, block any further investigative steps meant to expose Trump’s role in the payments.
The other investigation that’s public concerns Greg Craig, who served as former President Obama’s White House counsel and was charged this spring with lying to officials about work he did on behalf of the government of Ukraine.
And Barr has the power to oversee other politically charged investigations beyond Mueller’s referrals — including the Southern District of New York’s investigation into whether any foreigners improperly donated to Trump’s inaugural fund.
Then there’s Erik Prince, founder of the private militia group Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Prince was referred to the DOJ for possible perjury charges by the House Intelligence Committee in April after the committee announced it had uncovered six places where Prince’s testimony to Congress appeared to diverge from the findings of the Mueller report.
Barr could put his thumb on any of these, legal analysts say. And there doesn’t seem to be much that could technically stop him.
Yet if Barr weighs in too heavily on any of these investigations, he might spark a backlash from line prosecutors and others further down in the DOJ’s ranks, according former prosecutors like Gene Rossi, who spent 30 years as a DOJ employee in the Eastern District of Virginia.
“Bill Barr has the authority, as the attorney general, to snuff out and stifle any investigation,” Rossi said. “But if he takes action seen as a gross abuse of power, you’ll see career prosecutors raise holy hell. They would not hesitate to leak, and tell the public that the big con is in.”
That goes double for the Southern District of New York, which has a notable reputation for independence, Rossi said.
“If the attorney general tries to snuff out that [campaign finance] investigation, you’d probably see a revolt in Manhattan,” Rossi said.
Recuse me? Recuse yourself
When Barr appeared before the Senate on Wednesday, Sen. Kamala Harris of California pushed him to recuse himself from these cases based on what she called his conflict of interest.
“I think the American public has seen quite well you are biased in this situation and not objective, and that is the conflict of interest,” Harris said.
“Barr is fully within his rights not to recuse himself from the various investigations that spun off as a result of the Mueller probe.”
Unfortunately for Harris, career prosecutors and legal experts said that’s not actually much of an argument.
“I can understand why people might feel that Barr has compromised his independence and ability to be fair in those cases based on the misleading nature of his letter, press conference and testimony before the Senate,” said Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. Attorney for Detroit. “But the standard that DOJ uses for recusal is whether the prosecutor has a financial, personal or political relationship with the subject of the investigation.”
And there’s no indication Barr has any such relationship with any of these mystery investigations.
Some argue Democrats’ calls for Barr to recuse from these matters are primarily political theater.
“Barr is fully within his rights not to recuse himself from the various investigations that spun off as a result of the Mueller probe,” said Joseph Moreno, a former federal prosecutor. “Not only is there nothing to indicate any actual conflict of interest, but it is a stretch to argue there is even a perceived conflict involving these various cases each of which have their own facts, targets, and timelines.”
Cover: Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)