Trump-Ukraine Call Puts Attorney General William Barr in the Hot Seat

Any involvement by Barr in digging up dirt on a Trump opponent would be an extraordinary political intervention by the top U.S. law enforcement official.

Attorney General William Barr walks to the back of the stage to get his bagpipes and join in playing with members of the NYPD Pipes and Drums as a surprise to the audience at the beginning of the U.S. Attorneys' National Conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr at the U.S. Attorneys' National Conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2019. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

The summary of a call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released on Wednesday not only confirmed reports that Trump repeatedly pressured the foreign leader to uncover damaging information about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, but also thrust Attorney General William Barr into the center of a rapidly unfolding scandal.

In the July call, Trump urged Zelensky to follow up with Barr, as well as with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said, according to the summary. On four separate occasions, according to the document, Trump said that his “Attorney General” or “Attorney General Barr” would call Zelensky about the matter.

The document released Wednesday was not a verbatim reproduction of the call. A footnote in the transcript describes it as “the notes and recollections of Situation room duty and [National Security Council] policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place.”

It’s unclear what role, if any, Barr played in Trump and Giuliani’s efforts to dig up dirt about Biden, who is now a Democratic presidential candidate, but any involvement by the attorney general would represent an extraordinary political intervention by the nation’s top law enforcement official. It also raises questions about whether the Justice Department’s suppression of a whistleblower complaint may have had the effect of shielding Barr.

Although the call summary appears to show that Trump believes Barr would personally involve himself in the attempt to pressure Zelensky, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec quickly issued a statement on Wednesday denying that Barr had ever spoken to Trump about it.

“The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son,” Kupec said. “The Attorney General has not communicated with Ukraine — on this, or any other subject. Nor has the Attorney General discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani.”

Democrats in Congress have already begun calling for Barr to recuse himself from any matter involving the whistleblower complaint or related oversight investigations. “The President dragged the attorney general into this mess,” House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler said. “At a minimum, Barr must recuse himself until we get to the bottom of this matter.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the call summary and “the Justice Department’s acting in a rogue fashion in being complicit in the President’s lawlessness confirm the need for an impeachment inquiry. Clearly, Congress must act.”

House Democrats are already investigating whether Trump used his office to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president. Trump has suggested without evidence that Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a top prosecutor because he was investigating Hunter Biden’s company for corruption, but anti-corruption experts have said that the vice president’s intervention made the company more, not less likely to be prosecuted.

Barr’s Justice Department has already played a role in suppressing the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine. Trump’s acting director of national intelligence took the unusual step of consulting with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel about whether to disclose the complaint. The Justice Department advised that he should not, even though Congress has passed a law requiring the director to automatically transmit claims the inspector general deems “credible” and of “urgent concern.”

On Wednesday, the Office of Legal Counsel released a memo explaining its decision, which argues that the complaint does not relate directly to misconduct within the intelligence community or by an intelligence agency. Rather, it says, the complaint “arises out of a confidential diplomatic communication between the President and a foreign leader that the intelligence-community complainant received secondhand.” The opinion concludes that it therefore does not involve an “urgent concern,” and so the law, as written, does not require it to be sent to Congress.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, Barr denied that Trump had ever pressured him to investigate someone. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked “if the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone.” After pausing, Barr responded: “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ There have been discussions of matters out there. They have not asked me to open an investigation.”

Barr was also asked by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., whether a presidential campaign needed to notify the FBI when a foreign government offered dirt on an opponent. After pausing, Barr replied, “If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.”

If the summary of Trump’s call with Zelensky is accurate, this would not be the first time Trump has sought Justice Department intervention against his political opponents.

Last year, the New York Times reported that Trump had told his White House counsel Donald McGahn he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute his former election opponent, Hillary Clinton, and FBI Director James Comey. In response, McGahn directed his staff to produce a memo saying that Trump lacked the authority to order a prosecution and that asking for a Justice Department investigation could trigger a backlash that could lead to impeachment.

Join The Conversation