Editor’s Note: James D. Schultz is a CNN legal commentator and chair of the Government and Regulatory practice at Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor. He served as senior associate counsel and special assistant to the president in the Office of White House Counsel during the Trump administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Amid the breathless dissection of President Donald Trump’s phone call to the President of Ukraine came another interesting bit of news that was initially drowned out by the focus on the rough transcript.
In a tweet, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler called for Attorney General William Barr to recuse himself from all matters related to the Ukraine investigation. Nadler’s rationale was pretty simple: In Trump’s call to President Volodymyr Zelensky, the President said he would have Barr speak with Zelensky about an investigation of former Vice President (and current presidential candidate) Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Barr has strongly denied any involvement in the matter.
If mentioning the attorney general’s name in a conversation with a foreign leader is reason for recusal, Barr and all future attorneys general won’t have much to do.
Nadler sent his recusal tweet before the whistleblower complaint that started this whole controversy was even made public. In the complaint, the whistleblower, who said he had no firsthand knowledge of Trump’s call to Zelensky, made the unsubstantiated claim that “Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.”
Based on what we know from the complaint and the transcript, there is nothing in the rules of professional conduct for attorneys, or in the ethics laws governing US public officials, that even comes close to grounds for recusal.
But since Nadler hit “send” on his tweet last Wednesday, the chorus for Barr’s hide has grown louder, albeit from predictable sources.
According to the Department of Justice, Barr has never spoken to Trump about the Ukraine matter, nor has Barr spoken to Zelensky. Democrats and others have speculated about whether Barr withheld, or narrowed, the Justice Department’s inquiry into the whistleblower complaint. None of that justifies the way they’re targeting him.
Serving as a piñata for Democrats and the certain members of the liberal media is not new for Barr. The calls for his resignation before and after the release of the Mueller report have been loud and clear – and very unfair.
The reality is that anyone within Trump’s orbit who isn’t willing to deliver the goods on the President, or who stands in the Democrats’ way in their rush to judgment, is a target. Trump’s opponents would like Barr to help them make a case against the President, regardless of whether or not such a case exists.
But Barr won’t cooperate, and it’s driving Democrats to distraction. Instead, the attorney general is doing his job.
Barr was attorney general under George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. Before that, he served as deputy attorney general and assistant attorney general. He’s an accomplished prosecutor who believes in the rule of law. He has followed through on his commitment to transparency: Bear in mind that there would have been no release of the Mueller report or the call transcript if not for Barr. It was entirely within his discretion to release the report, and he did so.
Recent news reports indicate that Barr also urged the President to release the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky.
Barr told CBS News in May that he hadn’t been particularly interested in being attorney general for a second time. He never pursued the job, and he certainly didn’t need it.
Instead, Barr said he returned to the Justice Department because he believes in public service and told CBS the personal attacks, which he dismisses as an inevitable part of serving in a “crazy, hyperpartisan period of time,” don’t bother him. Still, Barr doesn’t deserve the treatment he’s receiving.
Remember, Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he didn’t think special counsel Robert Mueller was engaged in a “witch hunt” in the Russia investigation.
From what I’ve seen of his career, Barr isn’t an ideologue. When he told the committee he wouldn’t be bullied by anyone, including the President, into doing something wrong, I believe he meant it.
Barr, who joined the Trump administration after I left it, must understand that the reason his detractors loathe him so much is because Donald Trump is President, and Barr was chosen by Trump. These detractors don’t believe Trump should have been elected.
Ever since then, it’s been hate by association.
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“One of the ironies today is that people are saying it is President Trump who is shredding our institutions. I really see no evidence of that,” Barr told CBS in May. “From my perspective, the idea of ‘resisting’ a democratically elected President and basically throwing everything at him, and really changing the norms on the grounds that we have to stop this President. That’s where the shredding of our norms and institutions is occurring.”
Barr is right. Democrats are throwing everything they can at the President. The damage, to the presidency and the country, has yet to be calculated.
In the meantime, Barr is taking hits he doesn’t deserve.