President Donald Trump’s two most prominent lawyers — Rudy Giuliani, who serves him privately, and Attorney General William Barr, who serves the country publicly — are principal figures in the impeachment crisis engulfing the White House. Pugnacious career attorneys who have slipped in and out of private firms and public offices for decades, they both have been fiercely loyal advocates for the president.
Their advocacy is likely to come under heightened scrutiny by Congress, and possibly by law enforcement, if for no other reason than both men were mentioned by Trump in a declassified memorandum — made public Wednesday — outlining the telephone call the president shared with Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, on July 25.
That call, in which Trump asks Zelensky to unearth dirt on a political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is the springboard for an impeachment inquiry that will pivot off the extent to which Trump abused the powers of the presidency to further his own interests. Trump urged Zelensky to work with Barr and Giuliani to collect dirt on Biden, a staggering demonstration of the president’s casual and routine lawlessness.
Giuliani hasn’t denied involvement in any of this; he has worn it as a badge of honor during a number of unhinged media appearances over the last several days. A Justice Department spokeswoman told the media on Wednesday that Barr had no knowledge of the Zelensky call till a whistle-blower’s complaint about it was forwarded to the agency for review in late August. The spokeswoman also said that Barr never discussed investigating Biden or his activities in Ukraine with Trump or Giuliani. Even so, Barr didn’t recuse himself from his agency’s review of the whistle-blower’s complaint, and the Justice Department’s handling of the matter will get a vetting.
Here are a pair of vignettes to consider as the impeachment inquiry that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched on Tuesday rolls along.
- The former New York City major joined Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Tuesday for an interview that began with a light grilling about why Giuliani took it upon himself to investigate allegations that Biden might have acted improperly in Ukraine a few years ago.
“Why are you the one to do this? Why isn’t this the role of the Justice Department or the FBI? Why task you, the personal attorney to the president, to do that?” Ingraham asked. “Why is Rudy running the show on that? Why isn’t it FBI and main Justice?”
“That’s a very good question. Because the FBI’s performance since this entire investigation including up to this moment is flawed,” Giuliani responded. “Why am I doing it, Laura? Can’t you figure it out? I’m his defense lawyer. I’m defending him. He’s my client. I don’t know, only Donald Trump is not entitled to a defense in America?”
“But how are you defending him by investigating Biden?”
“Because one of the things that the prosecutor that Biden had fired (in Ukraine) and then the prosecutor that Biden helped to put in, one of the things they did was to dismiss a case against an organization that was collecting false information about Donald Trump, about Paul Manafort, and feeding it to the Democratic National Committee.”
“OK, that explains it to people,” Ingraham assured her viewers.
I don’t know, that didn’t really explain it to me. What did explain it to me was a revealing Washington Post story published Tuesday night that showed the extent to which Trump allowed national security officials in his own administration to be sidelined in recent months in favor of political loyalists.
Giuliani, who didn’t have an official White House position but had Trump’s backing, essentially began remaking foreign policy with Ukraine and successfully targeted the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — a Barack Obama appointee — for removal. Why? According to The Post, it was so Giuliani could help Trump pressure Zelensky “for Trump’s political gain.” Not diplomacy. Not defending Trump from false accusations. Political gain — in short, finding a way to kneecap Biden, at that point his likely 2020 challenger.
“The person who appears to have been more directly involved at nearly every stage of the entanglement with Ukraine is Giuliani,” The Post noted. “He also had his own emissaries in Ukraine who were meeting with officials, setting up meetings for him and sending back information that he could circulate in the United States.”
Giuliani has said his visits to Ukraine were authorized and arranged by the State Department, and on Ingraham’s show he brandished his mobile phone, claiming records of his interaction with the agency were stored there (as The Post’s Greg Sargent points out, that likely made Giuliani’s phone evidence that congressional investigators will want to obtain). A State Department spokeswoman said Giuliani is a “private citizen acting in a personal capacity as a lawyer for President Trump. He does not speak on behalf of the U.S. government.”
Giuliani, who has an extensive business history himself in Ukraine, faces possible legal pain now. As my Bloomberg News colleagues Greg Farrell and David Voreacos pointed out, conspiracy, bribery, campaign finance violations and other possible crimes have all sprouted around Giuliani because of the Ukraine debacle. The Logan Act, which forbids U.S. citizens from engaging in unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments, may wind up haunting the former federal prosecutor as well.
- When Barr visited the Senate in May to discuss his handling of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report about his probe of the Trump team’s intersection with Russia during the 2016 election, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., uncorked a brisk round of questions that left the normally unflappable attorney general off balance.
“Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” Harris asked.
“Um … I wouldn’t … I wouldn’t, um,” Barr replied.
“Yes or no?”
“Can you repeat that question?”
“I will repeat it: Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone? Yes or no, please, sir.”
“Um, the president or anybody else?”
“Seems you’d remember something like that and be able to tell us.”
“Yeah, but I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there that they have not asked me to open a investigation.”
“Perhaps they’ve suggested?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t say suggest.”
“I don’t know.”
(Barr purses his lips and shakes his head.)
“You don’t know. OK.”
If Harris knew then what she knows now, she might have asked Barr if the president had ever asked him to investigate Joe Biden or any of his family members. And Barr, based on what the Justice Department spokeswoman told reporters on Wednesday, would have said no.
Still, Barr is the same guy who ran interference for Trump when the Mueller report became public earlier this year, mischaracterizing it and misrepresenting the severity of some of its damning conclusions. He even adopted some of the president’s own disparaging talking points when discussing the report and the motives of the team of federal investigators and prosecutors who put it together.
The Justice Department’s handling of the whistle-blower complaint that first brought attention to the Trump-Zelensky call doesn’t inspire confidence, either. Filed on Aug. 12 with the intelligence community’s inspector general, the complaint sat there for two weeks before the IG forwarded it to the director of national intelligence on Aug. 26. By law, the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is required to turn over the complaint immediately to House and Senate intelligence committees. But Maguire (who testified Thursday before Congress) didn’t do that.
Instead, the Justice Department provided the DNI with a legal opinion: Maguire didn’t have to turn over the complaint because it didn’t involve a national security issue that fell within the purview of the intelligence committees. It’s hard to see how that was the right way to think about it, though. There were lots of national security issues presented by Trump’s Ukraine escapade, not the least of which was the president’s own behavior.
Nonetheless, the upper reaches of the Justice Department and its Office of Legal Counsel decided it was proper to usurp the powers of the IG and keep a lid on the whistle-blower’s complaint. “The idea that the Department of Justice would have intervened to prevent (the complaint) from getting to Congress throws the leadership of the department into further ill repute,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in a news conference Wednesday.
The Justice Department also received a referral to decide whether Trump’s phone call violated any campaign finance laws that bar foreign donations to U.S. politicians. Nope, was the Justice Department’s answer, no laws broken. Despite all of this, the entire mess started to come into public view after Sept. 9, the day that the IG independently decided to inform Schiff about the seriousness of the whistle-blower’s complaint.
How much of all this did Barr know? How much of it did he discuss with Trump? Why didn’t Barr recuse himself from any involvement — especially after he knew that Trump mentioned him by name in his call with Zelensky? Mysteries abound.
Newly informed by the Ukraine disclosures, Harris noted on her Twitter feed on Wednesday that she intends to visit with Barr again.
“I asked Attorney General Barr in May: did the White House ever ask him to investigate anyone?” Harris tweeted. “He wouldn’t answer. Barr needs to come back to Congress and answer that question again. Under oath. This time, he better have an answer.”