Volker: What role did he play in Ukraine debacle?

Former U.S. special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Kurt Volker was little known outside of foreign policy circles as the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine until last week, when the whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump recast the once obscure diplomat as a central figure in the unfolding impeachment inquiry.

Volker is scheduled to testify in private Thursday to congressional investigators who want to ask about any role he may have played in Trump’s efforts to press Ukrainian officials for damaging information about the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Volker resigned Friday after being asked to testify to Congress about the complaint, which describes how Trump in a July 25 phone call repeatedly prodded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for an investigation of Biden and his son, while his administration delayed the release of military aid to help Ukraine fight Russia-backed separatists. The complaint says Volker met in Kyiv with Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian political figures a day after the call and he provided advice about how to “navigate” Trump’s demands.

“I think he was doing the best he could,” said retired senior U.S. diplomat Daniel Fried, who described the actions of his former colleague as trying to guide Ukrainians on “how to deal with President Trump under difficult circumstances.”

Volker’s role, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s confirmation that he was also on Trump’s July 25 call, deeply entangles the State Department in the impeachment inquiry now shadowing the White House.

The State Department said Volker has confirmed that he put a Zelenskiy adviser in contact with Rudy Giuliani, at the Ukraine adviser’s request, and Giuliani has said he was in frequent contact with Volker.

Separately, The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Volker met last year with a top official from the same Ukrainian energy firm that paid Biden’s son Hunter to serve on its board. The meeting occurred even as Giuliani pressed Ukraine’s government to investigate the company and the Bidens’ involvement with it.

Pompeo accused the congressional investigators of trying to “bully” and “intimidate” State Department officials with subpoenas for documents and testimony, suggesting he would seek to prevent them from providing information. But the committee managed to schedule the deposition with Volker as well as one next week with Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was removed from the post last spring.

The spotlight is an unlikely place for Volker, who was brought into the Trump administration by Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to serve as envoy for Ukraine. He worked in a volunteer capacity and had retained his job as head of the John McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.

Though his name may not have been known before last week to most Americans, Volker had a long diplomatic career, often working behind the scenes. He was a principal deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs before becoming the U.S. ambassador to NATO in 2008.

In his most recent role as envoy to Ukraine, he spoke openly of U.S. support for Ukrainian sovereignty. Last year, he criticized the expansion of Russian naval operations and Russia’s resistance to full deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine to monitor the fight against the Russia-backed separatists.

Pompeo himself mentioned Volker during an appearance in Rome on Wednesday when he confirmed his participation in the call, saying he had been focused on “taking down the threat that Russia poses” in Ukraine and to help the country build its economy.

Fried described Volker as a “dedicated public servant and professional, a problem solver.”

“In all of the years I’ve worked with him, we never had a partisan conversation,” Fried said. “He’s an utter professional.”

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Did Barr mislead Congress during his confirmation?

Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Attorney General William Barr portrayed himself as an apolitical elder statesman at his confirmation hearing. He declared he’d rather resign than be asked to fire special counsel Robert Mueller without cause and insisted the prosecutor he’d known for decades would never involve himself in a witch hunt as the president claimed.

But now Barr has emerged as arguably the most divisive figure in Donald Trump’s administration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused him on Thursday of lying — a charge the Justice Department called reckless and false — and House Democrats are poised to hold him in contempt.

His appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week accelerated calls for his resignation after he said Trump had been falsely accused and he spun politically damning episodes in Mueller’s report in the president’s favor.

Barr might have seemed an unlikely lightning rod given his long government career, his distance from Trump’s inner circle and his age, 68, that he said made him unconcerned with political advancement. But he had telegraphed his sympathetic view of strong presidential powers — surely a useful viewpoint for Trump — in a memo to the Justice Department last year that criticized Mueller’s Trump-Russia obstruction of justice investigation. His latest testimony, including that Trump’s actions weren’t criminal, reaffirmed that philosophy and, to critics, established Barr as the president’s protector.

“We have a chief law enforcement officer who is definitely the defense lawyer for the president,” Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said Thursday.

The Senate testimony was the latest episode in a turnabout in public perception for Barr, whose selection was greeted by some with high hopes that he would return the Justice Department to stability following two years of leadership upheaval. He replaced an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was ridiculed by the president and ultimately pushed out, and an acting one, Matt Whitaker, who was dismissed by Democrats as unqualified and a Trump loyalist.

It’s the second time around for Barr, who was attorney general under George H.W. Bush between 1991 and 1993 and involved in some of that administration’s weightiest decisions. He was Mueller’s Justice Department boss back then, and at his January confirmation hearing he described the special counsel as a longtime friend and a “straight shooter” who’d be allowed to finish his Trump investigation without interference.

At the same hearing, he parried questions about his memo by saying it was written without knowing facts of the investigation. He also acknowledged constraints on presidential power, conceding that it could be a crime if a president granted a pardon in exchange for silencing someone with incriminating information. Even if most Democrats didn’t support him, they didn’t appear to dread his appointment.

“Confirmation hearings are easy in the sense that the smart nominee knows the right answer to all the questions, which is not to commit to anything but agree to consider everything,” said Greg Brower, a former assistant director in the FBI’s office of congressional affairs. “Now that he’s in the middle of the aftermath of the Mueller investigation, he’s obviously being pinned down to more specific answers to very specific questions, and that is obviously proving to be more problematic for him.”

While House Democrats have already asked Mueller to testify, Senate Democrats, as the minority in that chamber, are more limited. They don’t have the power to set hearing schedules or compel officials to appear. But they are trying to build a case in public opinion that it’s Mueller, not Barr, who needs to tell the investigation story.

Testimony from Mueller is especially in demand now that his apparent rift with Barr has been exposed. It stems from Barr’s decision to communicate Mueller’s main conclusions of his two-year investigation in a four-page letter. The letter said Mueller had not established a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign and had not reached a conclusion on obstruction despite laying out evidence on both sides of that question.

The decision to avoid a determination on obstruction caught Barr by surprise, Justice Department officials said, and he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein resolved to reach a conclusion in place of Mueller’s team. They decided Mueller’s evidence didn’t add up to a crime, a decision that puzzled some Democrats and legal analysts given the vivid accounts of Trump’s conduct in the report.

Days later, Mueller complained to Barr that his summary letter had “not fully captured the context, nature and substance” of the special counsel’s work or conclusions. Barr said Wednesday his goal had been simply to release the report’s bottom-line conclusions as he readied the entire document for release. Neither Barr nor Mueller went public with their conversation.

When Barr was asked weeks later at an unrelated congressional hearing about reports of discontent within the special counsel’s team, he said he didn’t know what those reports referred to. Pelosi said Thursday “the attorney general of the United States was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States — that’s a crime.” The Justice Department vehemently denied that.

House Judiciary Democrats now are poised to hold Barr, who skipped a hearing Thursday in a dispute over its terms, in contempt after the Justice Department missed a committee deadline to provide an unredacted version of Mueller’s report.

Even if Barr didn’t immediately acknowledge the disconnect with Mueller, his tone about the investigation did appear to evolve.

He told lawmakers at an April 10 hearing that he believed there’d been “spying” on the Trump campaign, echoing a common Trump talking point, and committed to investigating how and why the FBI began its probe into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

At a news conference shortly before the release of Mueller’s report last month, he repeatedly said Mueller had not found collusion between Trump aides and Russia, though the actual report pointedly noted that collusion is not a legal term. He praised the president’s cooperation, though Trump declined an in-person interview. He said Trump had a “sincere belief” that the investigation was undermining his presidency.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats confronted Barr with a series of episodes from Mueller’s report, including the president’s directive to aides to lie on his behalf and for his White House counsel to seek Mueller’s ouster. But for each instance, Barr said Trump lacked the criminal intent required for obstruction and said there were alternate explanations for his behavior beyond trying to shut down the investigation.

Democrats were anything but persuaded.

“You have been very adroit and agile in your responses to questions here,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “But I think history will judge you harshly and maybe a bit unfairly because you seem to have been the designated fall guy for this report.”

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Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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Muller unhappy with Barr over handling of report

special counsel Robert Mueller departs St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Special counsel Robert Mueller expressed frustration to Attorney General William Barr last month about how the findings of his Russia investigation were being portrayed, saying he worried that a letter summarizing the main conclusions of the probe lacked the necessary context and was creating public confusion about his team’s work, a Justice Department official said Tuesday night.

Mueller communicated his agitation in a letter to the Justice Department just days after Barr issued a four-page document that summarized the special counsel’s conclusions about whether President Donald Trump’s campaign had conspired with Russia and whether the president had tried to illegally obstruct the probe. Mueller and Barr then had a phone call on which the same concerns were addressed. The official was not authorized to discuss Mueller’s letter by name.

The letter lays bare simmering tensions between the Justice Department and the special counsel about whether Barr’s summary adequately conveyed the gravity of Mueller’s findings , particularly on the key question of obstruction. The revelation is likely to sharpen attacks by Democrats who accuse Barr of unduly protecting the Republican president and of spinning Mueller’s conclusions in Trump’s favor. And it will almost certainly be a focus of Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at which the attorney general will defend his handling of Mueller’s report.

“After the Attorney General received Special Counsel Mueller’s letter, he called him to discuss it,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

“In a cordial and professional conversation, the Special Counsel emphasized that nothing in the Attorney General’s March 24 letter was inaccurate or misleading. But, he expressed frustration over the lack of context and the resulting media coverage regarding the Special Counsel’s obstruction analysis,” she added.

Barr’s letter, released just two days after the Justice Department received the special counsel’s report, said Mueller had not reached a conclusion on whether the president had obstructed justice despite presenting evidence on both sides of the question. Justice Department officials were surprised Mueller had not made a determination, prompting Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to step in and decide on their own that the evidence was insufficient to support an obstruction charge.

Though Barr’s letter did say that Mueller’s team had not exonerated Trump on obstruction nor concluded that he had committed a crime, it did not detail the specific evidence Mueller’s team accumulated or describe Mueller’s legal analysis as he examined nearly a dozen episodes of potential obstruction, including the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Barr has sought to downplay any disagreements with the special counsel and has brushed aside allegations that he mischaracterized Mueller’s findings.

Barr said Mueller answered “no” when he asked him whether he would have recommended indicting Trump but for a Justice Department legal opinion that says a sitting president cannot be criminally prosecuted. Mueller’s report, however, makes clear that his thought process was shaped in part by that legal opinion and that he believed it would be unfair to publicly accuse the president of a crime if he could not be prosecuted and have a trial to defend himself.

The attorney general also did not acknowledge any sort of potential disagreement with Mueller at a recent Justice Department appropriations hearing, telling a Democratic congressman, “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.”

As Mueller shared his frustrations with Barr on the phone call, the men discussed whether additional context from the report could be released, Kupec said. But Justice Department officials said they decided it made more sense to release the bottom line findings of Mueller’s report rather than include the detailed legal analysis behind them. They also decided against releasing summaries that Mueller’s team had prepared. Barr has said such summaries run the risk of being either over-inclusive or under-inclusive.

The letter is likely to be a central focus at Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Barr. According to prepared testimony released Tuesday night, Barr will tell the committee that Mueller’s investigation concluded without any interference and that he never overruled the Justice Department on any proposed action.

The appearance is Barr’s first on Capitol Hill since he released a redacted version of Mueller’s report on April 18 and comes amid deepening Democratic skepticism about his impartiality. Those concerns were fueled in part by Barr’s statements at a press conference announcing the release of the Mueller report, at which he repeated multiple times that Mueller’s investigation had not found any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — even though the report notes that collusion is not a legal term.

The Washington Post was first to report the contents of the letter. The newspaper said Mueller complained that Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.”

“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” according to Mueller’s letter. “This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”

The Justice Department confirmed the authenticity of that language.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has been negotiating with Barr over a Thursday appearance, demanded that the Justice Department produce the letter by Wednesday morning.

“The Attorney General has expressed some reluctance to appear before the House Judiciary Committee this Thursday,” Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “These reports make it that much more important for him to appear and answer our questions.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said: “This is exactly why I said Mr. Barr should never have been confirmed in the first place. At this point he has lost all credibility, and the only way to clear this up is for Mr. Mueller to testify publicly.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., went further in his criticism, saying Barr lied to him in testimony about Mueller’s report and should resign. In that hearing, Barr replied to Van Hollen that he didn’t know if Mueller agreed with his conclusions about the report, including that there wasn’t enough evidence in the report to support a charge of obstruction of justice.

In light of the Mueller letter, Van Hollen said Barr “totally misled me, the Congress, and the public. He must resign.”

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