On April 18, just before the Mueller report was released to the public, William Barr convened a press conference ostensibly to explain the redaction process and to discuss whether executive privilege was invoked.
Predictably, Barr seized on the opportunity to tell voters how to read Mueller’s findings. It was the second time the attorney general had taken the initiative when it came to spinning the narrative, knowing that the vast majority of Americans would never even attempt to make it through 458 pages of legalese. The first effort in that regard was Barr’s infamous “principal conclusions” memo which cleared Trump of obstruction on March 24, less than 48 hours after Mueller handed in his final report. (Mueller would later tell Barr the memo “did not capture the context and substance” of the report.)
As it turns out, Trump recently asked Barr to hold another press conference, this time to declare that the president didn’t break any laws in the July phone call with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky.
“The request from Trump traveled from the president to other White House officials and eventually to the Justice Department”, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday evening, adding that “in recent weeks, the Justice Department has sought some distance from the White House, particularly on matters relating to the burgeoning controversy over Trump’s dealings on Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry they sparked”.
Barr was mentioned repeatedly during the call in the same breath as Rudy Giuliani. Both men were name-dropped by Trump in the exchange that found the president telling his Ukrainian counterpart that Marie Yovanovitch was going to “go through some things”, a soundbite the ambassador testified made her feel threatened. To wit:
The President: Well, she’s going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out. I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor so good luck with everything. Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets. It’s a great country. I have many Ukrainian friends, they’re incredible people.
Barr denied ever having been involved directly in the matter, but he is overseeing an investigation into his own Justice department and the FBI and has quite literally flown around the world in search of evidence to support Trump’s claims that US law enforcement and the intelligence community engaged in illegal conduct during their investigation of his campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin.
Ultimately, Barr declined to hold the Ukraine news conference Trump requested, and Trump isn’t pleased. Apparently, the president has “mentioned Barr’s declination to associates in recent weeks, saying he wished Barr would have” gone through with it.
Barr should ask Jeff Sessions (who, incidentally, is aiming to take back his old Senate seat) what can happen when you decline to do a favor that Trump asks of you.
For now, Trump and the attorney general are still on “good terms”, people close to the White House say, but Barr hasn’t exactly been “aggressive” at going to bat for the president on the Ukraine issue. Trump’s request for the news conference reportedly came in late September when the transcript of the call was released, and although the Justice department said they had determined that no campaign finance laws had been broken, that was about it. (The public wasn’t even aware the DoJ was looking into a potential campaign finance violation.)
Despite the multiple references to Barr in the rough transcript of the call, the White House went out of its way to reiterate that the attorney general wasn’t involved. “The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former vice president Biden or his son”, Kerri Kupec said at the time. “The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine — on this or any other matter. The Attorney General has not communicated with Ukraine — on this or any other subject”.
Late last month, the Justice department denied having anything to do with Mick Mulvaney’s bungled press conference during which the acting chief of staff accidentally admitted to a quid pro quo. “[We have] no idea what… Mulvaney was talking about”, the DoJ said. “If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us”, an official said.
According to the administration, there’s nothing to see here. “The DOJ did in fact release a statement about the [Zelensky] call, and the claim that it resulted in tension because it wasn’t a news conference is completely false”, an official told WaPo on Wednesday.
Yes, it’s “completely false” to suggest there’s any tension between Barr and Trump – until you wake up one morning and #BastardBill is trending on Twitter. Then there’s tension.