When Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into debunked allegations of unethical behavior regarding former Vice President Joe Biden in the country, he suggested his counterpart work with someone in his administration to get to the bottom of it. That man? Attorney General William Barr.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump told Zelensky on the call, according to a rough transcript released by the White House. (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.)
On two more occasions during that conversation, Trump said he would have Barr (in addition to Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani) get in touch with Zelensky to look into the Biden thing.
Which is problematic, given that Trump is seemingly putting America’s attorney general in charge of coordinating an investigation – with a foreign power! – into a possible 2020 rival. Knowing what that looks like, the Justice Department released a statement in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s transcript release, denying that Barr had any contact with the Ukrainians.
“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,” said Department of Justice Spokesperson Kerri Kupec. “The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son.”
Which, well OK.
What’s most striking to me about this whole Ukrainian episode is how – again – Barr is somehow in the middle of it. It’s the latest in a pattern of behavior by Trump – and Barr – that always seems to put the attorney general right at the center of the biggest controversies within the administration. (All of which is all the more remarkable when you consider that Barr has only been at the head of the Justice Department since February.)
*Barr’s summary of the Mueller report downplayed, in the eyes of many people (including former special counsel Robert Mueller), the seriousness of the documented episodes of obstructive behavior by Trump.
*Barr – in consultation with then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – decided not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice after receiving Mueller’s report.
*Barr is leading the investigation into the actions of the Justice Department – including then-FBI Director James Comey – in advance of the 2016 election.
*Barr refused to turn over the full, unredacted Mueller report – for which Democrats held him in contempt.
There are just a lot of roads that lead back to Barr. A LOT. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Barr has done anything unethical or wrong. What it does mean, though, is that a) the Justice Department – under his leadership – is involved in a large number of things that Trump cares deeply about and b) Trump likes and trusts Barr, and likes to have him around or consult him on a wide variety of issues.
Barr is sort of like Trump’s security blanket – when he sees the AG involved, the President just feels better.
Which speaks to how Barr – in a very short period of time – has become absolutely essential to Trump and the biggest (and highest-profile) fights of his administration. Everywhere there’s controversy for Trump, Barr is there too. He’s at the center of history, whether he means to be or not.