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William Barr has some explaining to do, again

President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Many high-ranking Trump administration officials are finding themselves wrapped up in the burgeoning Ukraine investigation. Vice President Pence allegedly had a Ukraine trip canceled because President Trump wanted to send a message. And Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has claimed that Mike Pompeo’s State Department authorized his foreign exploits.

But the most intriguing official, at this point, might be Attorney General William P. Barr.

To be clear, we don’t know of anything Barr might have done with regard to Ukraine. But both the whistleblower and Trump allude to his involvement. And, in the meantime, his Justice Department has both hindered the complaint’s progress and declined to formally investigate it.

The whistleblower complaint released Thursday says that “Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well,” but curiously it doesn’t expand upon that much. About the only thing it notes is Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that mentions Barr would be working with Giuliani.

President Trump on Sept. 25 released the rough transcript of a July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president. Here are some key takeaways. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

And that’s indeed what the call shows. After Zelensky appears to agree to pursue the investigations Trump wants — including one involving Joe and Hunter Biden — Trump repeatedly says he will connect him with both Giuliani and Barr. He mentions Barr no fewer than five times, according to the rough transcript:

  • “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it."
  • “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call.”
  • “I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
  • “I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General.”
  • “So whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”

Despite these references, Barr’s Justice Department played a central role in holding up the disclosure of the whistleblower complaint to Congress. As acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire testified Thursday, he consulted the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which overruled the inspector general’s determination that the complaint was of “urgent concern” — a legal threshold that would have required disclosure to Congress within seven days.

What we learned from Maguire's public testimony

The Justice Department’s Criminal Division has also opted not to pursue a formal investigation of the complaint.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) pressed Maguire on Thursday about whether it was appropriate to involve the Justice Department in withholding a complaint in which Barr was named. Maguire indicated he was just following required processes — “I have to work with what I’ve got, and that is the Office of Legal Counsel within the executive branch” — yet Maguire also curiously played down Barr’s potential role in the whistleblower’s alleged wrongdoing.

The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett reports on the key takeaways from the declassified whistleblower complaint against President Trump. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

“I believe that the attorney general was mentioned in the complaint, not that he was a subject,” Maguire said.

But Trump’s own words indicate that the wrongdoing that the whistleblower alleges was something he very much intended to involve Barr in.

The Justice Department’s defense here is essentially that Trump never followed through. It issued an extensive denial on Wednesday, saying Barr had not:

  • Spoken with Trump “about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former vice president Biden or his son”
  • Been asked by Trump to “to contact Ukraine — on this or any matter”
  • “Communicated with Ukraine — on this or any other subject”
  • “Discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudolph W. Giuliani”

Added spokeswoman Kerri Kupec, “The attorney general was first notified of the president’s conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky several weeks after the call took place, when the Department of Justice learned of a potential referral.”

That’s pretty ironclad. And it wouldn’t be a total surprise if Trump hadn’t followed through on getting Zelensky in touch with Barr. Trump often just says thing like this. Invoking the attorney general of the United States could be seen as a tactic to convey to Zelensky how high a priority Trump intended for this to be.

But Trump’s call also indicates this is a situation in which he might have seen fit to involve his attorney general, despite its implications for his own reelection bid. And Barr hasn’t exactly indicated that he has the strongest of walls erected to prevent political influence in the Justice Department; in 2017, he told The Washington Post that there would be nothing inherently wrong with a president requesting specific investigations.

“The president is the chief executive, and if he believes there’s an area that requires an investigation, there’s nothing on its face wrong with that, there’s nothing per se wrong about that,” Barr said.

(Barr went on to suggest that Trump’s conspiracy theories about the Clintons and the origins of the Russia investigation were more worthy of investigation than was the Trump campaign’s possible collusion.)

Trump spent months bemoaning the fact that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions hadn’t done enough to protect him as president, and he has notably sung a very different tune with Barr, perhaps suggesting he believes that Barr has satisfied that role. Trump has also indicated publicly that he would see nothing wrong with involving Barr in the efforts in Ukraine.

“Certainly it would be an appropriate thing to speak to him about, but I have not done that as of yet,” Trump told Politico in May. “It could be a very big situation.”

And despite plenty of controversy over Trump intermingling personal gain with law enforcement, he decided to tell a foreign leader that Barr would help that leader investigate things that clearly carried personal political benefit for Trump.

Barr’s denial is important, and lawmakers will probably want to get it under oath. But even if he didn’t do anything regarding Ukraine, it raises questions about why his department believed it needed to inject itself into the transmission of the whistleblower complaint, given that he was mentioned in it. Overruling the “urgent concern” decision by the inspector general was a significant step and one that could have buried the complaint for good.

It also raises questions about whether Barr himself was involved in these decisions.