Dispatch, Explainers February 14, 2020

The Barr File: Trump’s Man on the Inside

A year ago today, William Barr became attorney general. At his confirmation hearing, he promised to be an independent actor, immune from political interference. President Donald Trump had made it known that he wanted an Attorney General who would protect him, but Barr’s assurances helped pave the way for his Senate confirmation. Trump had just gotten his Roy Cohn.

Barr has now spent a full year as Trump’s man on the inside. Far from the defender of institutional norms some claimed he’d be, Barr has forged a new frontier in Trump’s brazen weaponization of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Trump appointed Barr for the specific purpose of having a defender and attack dog in charge of the DOJ.

  • Trump forced out his previous attorney general, Jeff Sessions, apparently because Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation and therefore wouldn’t follow through on Trump’s demands to obstruct or fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
  • Trump reportedly railed in private against Sessions’ perceived disloyalty, demanding an attorney general who would protect him from all scandals and citing his infamous former attorney Roy Cohn as a model.
  • Barr was a standout candidate because he already had a track record of shielding his appointer: During his first stint as attorney general, Barr was instrumental in ending the Iran-Contra investigation, signing off on pardons for key figures, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
    • The pardons and other steps Barr took to defend then-president George H.W. Bush from fallout from the scandal earned Barr the nickname “Cover-up General” by no less an authority on presidential cover-ups than Nixon administration speechwriter William Safire.
    • As Iran-Contra independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh said at the time, Barr’s role “demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.
  • Prior to his appointment, Barr also submitted to the DOJ an unsolicited memo arguing that allegations that Trump had obstructed justice were “fatally misconceived,” asserting a rationale extremely similar to the one he ultimately used to explain his decision not to charge Trump.
  • Barr’s track record was so clear that, before appointing Barr attorney general, Trump reportedly considered hiring Barr as a defense lawyer during the Russia investigation.

Barr repeatedly came to Trump’s defense (and lied on Trump’s behalf) to protect him from fallout from the Mueller investigation.

  • After Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report on the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia and Trump’s subsequent obstruction of justice, Barr released an extremely misleading four-page letter to “summarize” Mueller’s report and suggest multiple conclusions Mueller did not reach.
    • Most notably, Barr’s letter implied that Mueller’s finding that “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities” meant that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia. The letter’s use of partial quotes, including the one above, where brackets indicated that a potentially crucial beginning of the sentence had been left out, immediately raised questions about the veracity of Barr’s summary. Those suspicions proved founded when the report came out: In context, the quoted sentence only ruled out Trump campaign involvement in the Russian government’s specific crimes related to hacking emails and operating a propaganda network on social media. The partially excerpted sentence also explicitly notes that Trump’s campaign sought to “benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” which Barr neglected to include in his summary.
    • After Barr released his letter, Mueller’s team objected, writing a letter to Barr to express their belief that he had misrepresented the “context, nature, and substance” of the report. The letter said that Barr’s conduct had caused “public confusion about critical aspects of the results” of the investigation. Mueller’s team also questioned Barr’s decision to issue his own summary of the report rather than releasing sections Mueller’s team specifically prepared with the intention of releasing them to the public with minimal redactions.
    • Amid the criticisms, Barr denied he had intended his letter to serve as a summary of the report, claiming it was a misrepresentation by the media, despite the letter explicitly stating its intention was to “describe the report and to summarize the principal conclusions reached by the Special Counsel.”
  • Barr also falsely claimed that the Office of Legal Counsel’s position that a sitting president cannot be indicted did not play a role in Mueller’s decision not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. This directly contradicts the Mueller report, which specifically says he “accepted OLC’s legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction.”
  • Right before the DOJ released the Mueller report, Barr held a press conference in which he continued to misrepresent the report. In the press conference, he falsely claimed that Mueller had found “no collusion;” that Trump’s team was offered, but rejected, assistance from Russia in 2016; and that the White House had “fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation.”
  • Barr has repeatedly refused to take even basic steps to enable additional transparency surrounding the Mueller report:
    • Barr dismissed the letter Mueller’s team wrote him about his summary, calling it “a bit snitty.” He also claimed he had received a call from Mueller in which the special counsel objected only to how the media had covered Barr’s letter. Asked to provide Congress notes from the call, he refused, asking, “Why should you have them?”
    • Barr has repeatedly refused to allow members of Congress to see the full, unredacted report, telling Congress they would have to go to court to seek permission to remove redactions related to grand jury material.
    • Amid scrutiny of his handling of Mueller’s investigation, including criticism of his refusal to provide additional details to the Senate, Barr pulled out of planned congressional testimony in May 2019. His refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas for the full Mueller report led the House to hold him in contempt of Congress.
    • Under Barr, the DOJ has argued in court that courts have no jurisdiction to enforce subpoenas for Trump administration officials implicated in the Russia and Ukraine investigations, most notably former White House Counsel Don McGahn. In the process, Barr is effectively executing Trump’s promise that he was “fighting all the subpoenas.”

Barr has actively used his position to advance attacks on Trump’s perceived political opponents.

  • Barr has repeatedly attacked and undermined the Russia investigation, actively propagating conspiracy theories popular among Trump’s defenders and Trump himself:
    • In a congressional hearing, Barr alleged, without providing evidence, that he thought “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign.
    • Barr has claimed that information the intelligence community received that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos had advance knowledge that Russia planned to anonymously release emails stolen from the Clinton campaign was insufficient predication for opening an investigation.
    • Barr has publicly contested DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s conclusion that the Russia investigation was properly predicated and not politically motivated. Instead, Barr has pointed to an investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham, whom Barr handpicked to run a parallel probe and who has also publicly disputed Horowitz’s conclusion, as the final word on the subject.
    • According to The Washington Post, Trump has pressured the DOJ to open or speed up investigations into his perceived political opponents, including Durham’s investigation, which Trump intends to use “as a cudgel” against his political opponents. (Barr has denied that Trump “asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” which does not rule out that Trump has otherwise pressured him or other senior officials about politically-sensitive investigations and cases.)
  • Barr has reportedly pressed the governments of Australia, the United Kingdom, and Italy to help him undermine the Mueller investigation. This includes by requesting they substantiate a debunked conspiracy theory that Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who told Papadolous that Russia had stolen “thousands of emails” from Clinton’s campaign, was an agent of Western intelligence services.
  • According to Trump legal-team member Lev Parnas, Barr was fully aware of efforts by the “BLT Team” of Trump’s allies to procure dirt on Trumps’ political opponents from corrupt Ukrainian officials, including in exchange for dropping charges against the indicted Ukrainian oligarch.
    • The DOJ has denied Parnas’s allegations against Barr.
  • Days after the Senate voted to acquit Trump in the Ukraine scandal without even pretending to hold a fair trial, Barr confirmed that the DOJ has established a special channel to obtain and vet information on Trump’s political opponents from Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
    • In other words, the DOJ opened a channel to receive dirt Giuliani claims to have obtained from corrupt Ukrainian officials—even though Giuliani is reportedly under investigation in part due to his relationships with corrupt Ukrainian officials.
    • Barr also reportedly personally attended a meeting at the DOJ between Rudy Giuliani and prosecutors exploring potential charges against a Venezuelan energy executive Giuliani represents.
    • No charges have been filed against the executive, and the DOJ says that, though he was already aware of the investigation into Parnas and his associate Igor Fruman, Barr was not aware at the time of any allegations against Giuliani, who denies he has committed any crimes.

 Under Barr, the DOJ has delivered on the lenience Trump has demanded for the accomplices who committed crimes on his behalf in 2016.

  • On February 10, the DOJ filed a sentencing memo recommending longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone face seven to nine years in prison for lying to investigators about and trying to cover up his actions as a liaison between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks in 2016.
  • The next day, after Trump attacked prosecutors on Twitter, senior DOJ officials moved to reduce the sentencing recommendation, claiming they were “shocked” by the “extreme,” “excessive,” and “grossly disproportionate” recommendation.
    • The change also came within hours of Barr giving a speech attacking “rogue” prosecutors who seek lenient sentences for (nonpresidential) criminal offenders, which he claimed, without evidence, puts them “on a conveyor to further and heightened criminality.”
    • Though a senior DOJ official has claimed, without providing evidence, that the decision was made before Trump’s tweet, The New York Times has reported that “Barr and his lieutenants intervened on Tuesday hours after Mr. Trump assailed the original sentencing recommendation.” Though the article does not completely rule out the possibility that the decision was unconnected to Trump’s tweets, it confirms that the intervention itself occurred afterward.
    • Trump dispensed with any pretext on Twitter: He congratulated Barr for “taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought” and attacking the “Mueller Scam” as “improperly brought & tainted.”
  • In the aftermath of the DOJ’s interference in the sentencing recommendations, all four prosecutors involved in Stone’s trial individually announced that they were withdrawing from the case and/or resigned from their positions in the DOJ.
    • Trump subsequently attacked the four prosecutors on Twitter, saying they “cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9 year prison sentence to a man that got caught up in an investigation that was illegal, the Mueller Scam, and shouldn’t ever even have been started.”
    • According to The New York Times, “Prosecutors across the United States, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said … that they had already been wary of working on any case that might catch Mr. Trump’s attention, and that the Stone episode only deepened their concern. They also said that they were worried that Mr. Barr might not support them in politically charged cases,” a concern that his intervention in Stone’s case only reinforced.
  • On the same day the Stone sentencing recommendation was changed, Jessie Liu, the U.S. Attorney for D.C. who oversaw the prosecutions of both Stone and Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort,stepped down from her post, “to be replaced the next day by a former prosecutor selected by Barr.” Liu had left the post to take a position as the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes; however, the Trump administration withdrew her nomination the same day Barr intervened to help Stone.
  • According to NBC, DOJ officials confirmed that Barr was personally involved in the decision to override prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations not only for Stone but also for Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
    • Mueller’s team initially suggested that Flynn, who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to prosecutors about conspiring with the Russian ambassador to the United States to undermine sanctions on Russia, face no prison time. Prosecutors made the recommendation due to Flynn’s “substantial” cooperation, which included providing thousands of documents and more than 62 hours of additional testimony.
    • However, after Flynn signaled he was no longer cooperating, including by hiring a new lawyer who has spread conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation, the DOJ recommended in January 2020 that Flynn face up to six months in prison.
    • Three weeks later, after Flynn filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea and claimed he had been misled into saying he lied, the DOJ appeared to reverse course, inexplicably reverting to the position that Flynn should face probation. (The judge in the case has since indefinitely postponed Flynn’s sentencing.)
    • NBC later reported that, as occurred with Stone, senior DOJ officials “intervened … to help change the government’s sentencing recommendations” as part of a broader pattern of Barr “tak[ing] control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump.” (Barr has denied that Trump “asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” which does not rule out that Trump has otherwise pressured him or other senior officials about politically-sensitive investigations and cases.)
    • Barr has even reportedly hired outside investigators to “scrutinize” the case against Flynn—more than two years after Flynn pleaded guilty.

Barr appears to be directly implicated in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment.

  • According to indicted Trump former legal-team member Lev Parnas, Barr was fully aware of efforts to procure dirt on Trump’s political opponents from corrupt Ukrainian officials. Parnas told NBC’s Rachel Maddow that Barr was “basically on the team” that sought to do so in coordination with Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who was indicted for alleged bribery in 2013 and whom the DOJ has called an “upper-echelon [associate] of Russian organized crime.” (Firtash, who is currently in Vienna fighting extradition to the United States, denies the charges against him; disputes allegations of ties to organized crime; and says he has not been involved in efforts to procure dirt on Trump’s opponents.)
    • According to Parnas, these efforts involved a proposed quid pro quo in which Firtash offered information they believed would undermine Mueller’s investigation in exchange for help getting charges against him dropped.
    • Parnas claims Firtash offered to reveal that Andrew Weissman, a DOJ attorney who worked on Mueller’s team, offered Firtash a deal for his cooperation with the Mueller investigation.
    • If Parnas’s allegations are true, they would effectively mean that the attorney general was party to a conspiracy with an indicted foreign oligarch. That conspiracy allegedly entailed working with the indicted oligarch to attack a DOJ official in exchange for assistance undermining an investigation with urgent national security implications, solely because said investigation personally implicated the president in a hostile foreign power’s attack on American democracy. (The DOJ has called Parnas’s allegations “100 percent false.”)
    • Barr apparently has not recused himself from oversight of the criminal case against Parnas, despite Parnas’s allegations.
  • In his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump repeatedly told Zelensky to talk to both Giuliani and Barr, implicitly linking their parallel efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation. The whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment investigation into Trump explicitly notes that Trump referenced Barr on the phone call. Despite this, and despite calls from the New York City Bar Association to recuse himself, Barr has not recused from handling the Ukraine investigation.
  • Under Barr, the DOJ has been complicit in Trump’s efforts to obstruct Congress’ investigation into the Ukraine scandal:
    • Intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson concluded that the whistleblower complaint was “urgent,” meaning that the acting director of national intelligence (DNI) was legally required to provide it to Congress within seven days. However, the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel advised the acting DNI that he did not have to comply with Atkinson, despite clear law requiring him to do so, resulting in a significant delay in Congress seeing the complaint.
    • The DOJ also rejected a referral for a potential criminal investigation regarding Trump’s call with Zelensky, determining that, despite campaign finance laws’ clear prohibition on accepting or soliciting information “of value” from foreign governments, Trump did not violate any laws in the call.
    • Despite Trump’s legal team’s insistence that Congress go to court to enforce subpoenas in the Ukraine investigation, the DOJ has continued to argue that the judiciary has no authority to do so. (According to House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), the DOJ at one point asserted that the judiciary has no authority to enforce subpoenas precisely because of Congress’s sole power of impeachment, directly contradicting Trump’s defense team.)
  • In his forthcoming book, former National Security Adviser John Bolton also reportedly claims he told Barr about concerns that Trump was “granting personal favors” to autocratic leaders of Turkey and China, a concern that, according to Bolton, Barr shared. (The DOJ has denied Bolton’s allegation.)
    • The DOJ’s defense of Trump’s efforts to “fight all of the subpoenas” appeared to have played a key role in Bolton not testifying before either house of Congress about Trump’s crimes during the impeachment investigation and trial.
    • Bolton initially joined a lawsuit in which his former deputy Charles Kupperman asked the courts to rule on Trump’s invocations of immunity, which the DOJ has defended in court.
    • House leaders chose not to subpoena Bolton or contest the lawsuit because the DOJ’s defense of Trump would result in drawn-out litigation, instead suggesting they abide by the court’s decision regarding McGahn’s testimony.
    • Senate Republicans ultimately voted almost unanimously against hearing from Bolton or other witnesses, citing both the House’s decision against contesting through court and Trump’s legal team’s warnings that litigation would unnecessarily draw out the impeachment process.

Barr has laid the groundwork for Trump to remain above the law—and to use the DOJ to attack his personal opponents.

  • In 2017, Barr also showed his willingness to propagate conspiracy theories to attack Trump’s political opponents, telling The New York Times that “the predicate for investigating” debunked conspiracy theories about the Clintons, including Uranium One, “is far stronger than any basis for investigation so-called ‘collusion.’”
  • Barr has refused to affirm that presidential candidates should not accept dirt on opponents from foreign countries or say whether Trump has asked him to investigate political opponents.
  • After the impeachment “trial” concluded, the DOJ unveiled a new policy that any investigation of a potential presidential candidate had to go through top DOJ leadership, clearing the way for Barr to reject any investigation of Trump (and greenlight investigations into his political opponents).

Barr has said that Trump’s efforts to interfere in the DOJ make it “impossible for me to do my job.” His track record shows that what he really means is that Trump’s public efforts to sway prosecution make it harder to pretend he isn’t abusing his power to defend Trump.

Barr’s shameless obeisance to Trump is a direct threat to American democracy. If he is allowed to remain in office, his willingness to not only protect Trump at all costs but also to turn the DOJ into another tool for Trump’s personal political benefit will only reinforce Trump’s belief that he is above the law and that the sole purpose of the government is his own enrichment and accumulation of power.