President Donald Trump never directly asked Attorney General William Barr to launch any type of investigation into Joe Biden, a Justice Department spokeswoman said Wednesday, clarifying that Barr’s denial of involvement extended beyond the Ukraine scandal.
However, the revelation that Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to work with Barr to probe Biden is putting a harsh new glare on the attorney general and the Justice Department, as critics questioned whether both have been irreparably tarnished under Trump.
With the White House deciding to release notes showing Trump invoked Barr’s name at least twice during the pitch to get the Ukrainian leader involved in digging up dirt on Trump’s political rival, the Justice Department quickly offered assurances that Barr hadn’t been drawn into the effort.
An initial Justice Department statement on Barr’s role issued at the same moment the call notes were made public seemed only to rule out the attorney general being asked to work with Ukraine on such a probe, but a subsequent clarification broadened the denial to cover any presidential request to Barr to launch an inquiry into Biden.
“If you are asking separately if the President has asked the AG to investigate Biden, the answer is no,” Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told POLITICO Wednesday afternoon.
Despite the denial, suspicion of Barr continues to run deep, particularly among Democrats who have accused the attorney general of acting more as an advocate for Trump than for the institutional interests of the Justice Department.
“The President dragged the Attorney General into this mess. At a minimum, AG Barr must recuse himself until we get to the bottom of this matter,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said on Twitter.
“Attorney General Barr must set aside from this investigation,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) wrote on Twitter. “He’s a witness that will be called to testify.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what investigations the Democratic lawmakers were calling on Barr to step aside from. The initial Justice Department statement Wednesday said the agency’s Criminal Division concluded that Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky didn’t violate campaign finance law.
“All relevant components of the Department agreed with this legal conclusion, and the Department has concluded the matter,” Kupec said.
Still, the scandal marks the latest example of Barr stoking questions of whether he is prioritizing Trump’s interests over those of the Justice Department. The attorney general raised eyebrows before even being confirmed after he wrote a memo to DOJ officials asserting that Trump’s interactions with ex-FBI director James Comey did not amount to obstruction of justice.
He further caused alarm when he appeared to front run special counsel Robert Mueller, characterizing Mueller’s conclusions as an exoneration of Trump. The attorney general also caused a stir when it was revealed last month that he had booked Trump Hotel for a 200-person holiday party that he was hosting and paying for.
Now, Barr’s central role in Trump’s Ukraine mess is reviving critics’ concerns about whether he is independent enough from his boss. Some former Justice Department officials said Barr should have completely detached himself from analysis of Trump’s conduct or the whistleblower complaint that Justice officials concluded was not required to be relayed to Congress.
“How could Barr decide DOJ, and not a Special Counsel, decides this?” former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal wrote on Twitter. “This is the paradigmatic case for it—involves possible wrongdoing by POTUS + now Barr himself mentioned in the ‘transcript.’ SC regs wouldn’t say Barr can then take case and clear Pres.”
Kupec said Barr didn’t formally step aside from the issue but the legal questions surrounding the whistleblower complaint were decided by the Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is headed by Steven Engel. He signed the opinion released Wednesday but arrived at in classified form back on Sept. 3.
“There was no recusal – OLC handled the advice to DNI,” the Justice spokeswoman said.
Despite the assurances, Barr critics said the handling of complaint continued a pattern of covering for the president.
“It’s almost like they were a key part of the cover up rather than an independent actor pursuing justice,” former Justice spokesman Matt Miller tweeted.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the latest all-consuming Trump scandal has clearly put Barr in an undesirable spot.
“It’s beyond Watergate. It’s beyond Nixonian,” Becerra told reporters at a news conference in Davis, Calif. “What I think is truly a bombshell is that President Trump included the nation’s attorney general, Bill Barr, in his conversation along with his personal political attorney Rudy Giuliani, as the two people that the Ukrainian president should be consulting with in this despicable act to try to create an investigation of Vice President Biden and his family.”
Becerra added, “Why is it that Attorney General Barr did not recuse himself from any consideration of what should be done with the whistleblower’s complaint? And so, while I think the president is clearly in deep trouble, I think he’s bringing a whole bunch of folks with him as well.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine