There is plenty Barr and his Justice Department have been willing to do that, at the least, blurs the lines between an independent law enforcement agency and one that protects the president who appointed Barr. But we appear to have stumbled upon one thing Barr’s DOJ won’t do: completely go to bat for Trump on the Ukraine controversy.
The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig broke a big story on Wednesday night, reporting that Trump had inquired about Barr holding a news conference in which he would absolve Trump of any guilt for his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The request was conveyed through White House officials to the Justice Department, and Trump has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that Barr didn’t do what he wanted, The Post reported. Despite the tension over the matter, the two reportedly remain on good terms.
The White House didn’t issue an explicit denial Wednesday, but Trump went on Twitter overnight and Thursday morning to call it fake news. These kinds of denials often fall apart over time, sometimes with the president himself eventually confirming the thrust of the reporting.
Trump appears particularly bent out of shape about this story, and perhaps for good reason: He has repeatedly asserted that his call with Zelensky was “perfect.” He has now run with “read the transcript” as a campaign slogan. His defenders are trying to focus things on the rough transcript as if it is the only evidence of a quid pro quo or potential wrongdoing — ignoring all the other evidence that has been amassed.
But that defense requires that the rough transcript itself not be viewed as problematic. And even Barr — whose views of presidential authority are remarkably broad and who would seem a prime candidate to be able to justify such a news conference to himself — isn’t willing to go that far.
What’s more, there are signs that the Justice Department, despite its initial pro-Trump interventions in the whistleblower matter, isn’t prepared to own what Trump has done vis-a-vis Ukraine.
Despite Trump’s claim that the “Justice Department already ruled that the call was good,” that’s not exactly what it decided. Instead, it said that it wouldn’t investigate the whistleblower complaint for a potential campaign finance violation, since that would require an exchange of a “thing of value,” and it’s not clear that an investigation meets that definition. (That was the argument, at least.)
In addition, when acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appeared to cop to a quid pro quo involving withholding military aid to force Ukraine to launch politically expedient investigations for Trump (including one involving the Bidens), the Justice Department quickly distanced itself.
“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,” a DOJ official said. Mulvaney later disowned his previous comments.
We shouldn’t read too much into this. Just because the Justice Department isn’t willing to vouch for Trump’s actions on Ukraine doesn’t mean it knows they were wrong. But it is in much the same position as congressional Republicans are here. If you look like you are defending Trump on the current evidence, there’s a good chance future evidence will render your defenses foolish. Lots of Republicans declared “no quid pro quo” when this started, and now we have six witnesses confirming there was, in fact, a quid pro quo.
There is also the matter of how the Justice Department could be asked to weigh in on future controversies, much like the whistleblower complaint. Barr knows that at least the appearance of independence will be important in such cases, and a blatantly political news conference absolving Trump of guilt would make future interventions more fraught.
But it’s also completely easy to see Barr, with his far-reaching view of executive authority, waltzing up to a microphone and declaring that of course a president can leverage a foreign country using whatever he wants to try to root out “corruption.” It’s hardly outside the bounds of what he’s already shown he’s willing to do.
The fact that he hasn’t done that in this case seems a telling moment.