Is Barr America’s AG or Trump’s mouthpiece?

President Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Attorney General William Barr.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

As Washington plunges into impeachment, Attorney General William Barr finds himself engulfed in the political firestorm, facing questions about his role in President Donald Trump’s outreach to Ukraine and the administration’s attempts to keep a whistleblower complaint from Congress.

Trump repeatedly told Ukraine’s president in a telephone call that Barr and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani could help investigate Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden, according to a rough transcript of that summertime conversation. Justice Department officials insist Barr was unaware of Trump’s comments at the time of the July 25 call.

When Barr did learn of that call a few weeks later, he was “surprised and angry” to discover he had been lumped in with Giuliani, a person familiar with Barr’s thinking told The Associated Press. This person was not authorized to speak about the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, often appears in rambling television interviews as a vocal defender of the president. Giuliani represents Trump’s personal interests and holds no position in the U.S. government, raising questions about why he would be conducting outreach to Ukrainian officials.

Barr is the nation’s top law enforcement officer and leads a Cabinet department that traditionally has a modicum of independence from the White House.

Yet to Trump, there often appears to be little difference between the two lawyers.

“I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it,” Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to the memo of the call that was released by the White House this past week.

Since becoming attorney general in February, Barr has been one of Trump’s staunchest defenders. He framed special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in favorable terms for the president in a news conference this year, even though Mueller said he did not exonerate Trump.

Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said Trump is treating the country’s attorney general as if he’s just another personal lawyer.

“I think it represents a larger problem with President Trump,” she said. “To him, it appears Giuliani and Barr both have the same job.”

Trump has frequently lauded Barr and his efforts to embrace the president’s political agenda. That’s in stark contrast to Trump’s relationship with his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whom the president repeatedly harangued in public.

Trump’s frustration with Sessions made clear how the president views the Justice Department — as a law enforcement agency that exists to carry out his wishes and protect him. Despite a close relationship during the 2016 campaign, Trump never forgave Sessions for withdrawing from the government’s investigation into 2016 election interference, a move that ultimately cleared the way for Mueller’s investigation.

Barr has come under the scrutiny of congressional Democrats who have accused him of acting on Trump’s personal behalf more than for the justice system. Democrats have also called on Barr to step aside from decisions on the Ukraine matter. Those close to Barr, however, have argued there would be no reason to do so because he was unaware of the Trump-Zelenskiy conversation.

The department insists Barr wasn’t made aware of the call with Zelenskiy until at least mid-August.

Barr has not spoken with Trump about investigating Biden or Biden’s son Hunter, and Trump has not asked Barr to contact Ukranian officials about the matter, the department said. Barr has also not spoken with Giuliani about anything related to Ukraine, officials have said.

Trump has sought, without evidence, to implicate the Bidens in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time then-Vice President Joe Biden was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Ukraine. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden was ever under investigation in Ukraine.

The Justice Department was first made aware of Trump’s call when a CIA lawyer mentioned the complaint from the unidentified CIA officer on Aug. 14, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke anonymously. Some Justice Department lawyers learned about the accusations after the whistleblower filed a complaint with the intelligence community’s internal watchdog.

The watchdog later raised concerns that Trump may have violated campaign finance law. The Justice Department said there was no crime and closed the matter.

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House holds Barr, Rose in contempt

Attorney General William Barr speaks about the census as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross listens during an event with President Donald Trump in the Rose Garden. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas related to a decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The House voted, 230-198, to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt. The vote, a political blow to the Trump administration, is largely symbolic because the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute the two men.

The action marks an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their House majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of the Trump administration.

Four Democrats opposed the contempt measure: Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Anthony Brindisi of New York, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Jared Golden of Maine. All but Lamb are in their first term and all represent swing districts. Independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican, supported the contempt measure.

President Donald Trump abandoned the citizenship question last week after the Supreme Court said the administration’s justification for the question ”seems to have been contrived .” Trump directed agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.

The White House called the vote “ridiculous” and “yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration.”

The Justice and Commerce departments have produced more than 31,000 pages of documents to the House regarding the census issue, and senior officials from both agencies, including Ross, have spoken on the record about the matter, the White House said, adding that Democrats continue to demand documents that the White House contends are subject to executive privilege.

“House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the contempt vote was an important step to assert Congress’ constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power.

“Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter — one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” Cummings said during House debate. “But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying for the first time in 70 years to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”

While Ross and other officials have claimed the sole reason they wanted to add the citizenship question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, “we now know that claim was nothing but a pretext,” Cummings said. “The Supreme Court said that.”

At the direction of Barr and Ross, “the departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the process Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the census,” Cummings said.

The contempt resolution “is about protecting our democracy, protecting the integrity of this body. It’s bigger than the census,” he said

Ross called the vote a public relations “stunt” that further demonstrates Democrats’ “unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our department.”

Democrats prefer to “play political games rather than help lead the country” and “have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government,” Ross said.

Ross told the oversight committee that the March 2018 decision to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats disputed that, citing documents unearthed last month suggesting that a push to draw legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways was the real reason the administration wanted to include the question.

Democrats feared that adding the question would reduce participation in immigrant-heavy communities and result in a severe undercount of minority voters. They have pressed for specific documents to determine Ross’ motivation and contend the administration has declined to provide the material despite repeated requests.

“The real issue we should be debating” is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens live in the United States, said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. Contrary to Democrats’ claims, Ross and other officials have cooperated with the oversight panel and provided thousands of documents, Comer said.

“If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress,” he said. “This is just another episode in political theater.”

In a letter late Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barr and Ross asked Democrats to postpone the vote, saying they have shown a “clear record of cooperation” with Congress. The contempt vote “is both unnecessarily undermining” relations between the two branches and “degrading” Congress’ “own institutional integrity,” they wrote.

Trump has pledged to “fight all the subpoenas” issued by Congress and says he won’t work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.

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House panel moves to hold Barr, others in contempt

U.S. Attorney General William Barr (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

House Democrats are moving to hold Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas for documents related to the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said the panel will vote soon on contempt measures for Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross unless specific documents are received by Thursday.

A contempt vote by the committee would be an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of President Donald Trump’s administration.

The House Judiciary Committee voted last month to hold Barr in contempt of Congress as part of a separate legal battle with the Trump administration over access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

A vote by the full House would be required to hold Barr and Ross in contempt on the census issue. Such a finding would be a political blow but would not result in real punishment since the men are unlikely to go to jail or be arrested.

Cummings said in a statement that the failure of Barr and Ross to respond to the Oversight subpoenas was “part of a pattern” by the administration to engage in a “cover-up” and challenge the authority of Congress to conduct constitutionally required oversight.

“This cover-up is being directed from the top,” Cummings said, noting that Trump has vowed to fight all subpoenas issued by Congress and refused to work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration.

While Trump has suggested that congressional subpoenas are partisan and somehow related to the Russia probe, neither claim is true, Cummings said. “The subpoenas in this investigation were adopted on a bipartisan basis, and this investigation has nothing to do with Russia,” he said.

A spokesman for Ross said the Commerce Department has worked in good faith with the committee and delivered nearly 14,000 pages of documents. Ross testified for nearly seven hours earlier this year.

“To any objective observer, it is abundantly clear that the committee’s intent is not to find facts, but to desperately and improperly influence the Supreme Court with mere insinuations and conspiracy theories,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement.

The Supreme Court is considering the citizenship question in a ruling expected later this year.

The committee approved the subpoenas on the census issue in April. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan was the sole Republican to join with Democrats in the 23-14 vote. Amash later said he supports an impeachment inquiry against Trump.

Democrats say they want specific documents to determine why Ross added the citizenship question to the 2020 census. They say the Trump administration has declined to provide the documents despite repeated requests.

Ross told the committee the decision in March 2018 to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Cummings disputed that, citing documents unearthed last week suggesting that the real reason the administration sought to add the citizenship question was to help officials gerrymander legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways.

Computer files from North Carolina redistricting expert Tom Hofeller include detailed calculations that lay out gains Republicans would see in Texas by basing legislative districts on the number of voting-age citizens rather than the total population.

Hofeller, a Republican operative who died last year, said in the documents that GOP gains would be possible only if the census asked every household about its members’ immigration status for the first time since 1950.

Democrats say Ross considered adding the citizenship question from his first days in the administration in 2017. They fear the question will reduce census participation in immigrant-heavy communities, harming representation and access to federal dollars.

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AG Barr attacks judges who rule against Trump

Attorney General William Barr  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Attorney General William Barr is taking on another item from President Donald Trump’s agenda, railing against judges who issue rulings blocking nationwide policies.

In a speech Tuesday night, Barr took aim at the broad judicial power, arguing that federal judges who have issued the so-called nationwide injunctions are hampering Trump’s efforts on immigration, health care and other issues with “no clear end in sight.”

It is the latest example of Barr moving to embrace Trump’s political talking points.

The attorney general is traditionally expected to carry out the president’s agenda as a member of the Cabinet while trying to avoid political bias. Democrats have cast Barr as an attorney general who acts more like Trump’s personal lawyer instead of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

At a re-election rally earlier this month, Trump railed against “activist judges who issue nationwide injunctions based on their personal beliefs,” which he said “undermine democracy and threaten the rule of law.”

Administration officials have often complained about the proliferation of nationwide injunctions since Trump became president. Vice President Mike Pence said a few weeks ago that the administration intends to challenge the right of federal district courts to issue such rulings.

“The legal community and the broader public should be more concerned, particularly about this trend of nationwide injunctions,” Barr said.

Barr highlighted the legal fights that have happened in federal courts across the country over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children but don’t have legal status to protect them from deportation.

The Justice Department, under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, argued that the Obama administration acted unlawfully when it implemented DACA. Texas and other Republican-led states eventually sued and won a partial victory in a federal court in Texas.

Civil rights groups, advocates for immigrants and Democratic-led states all have sued to prevent the end of the program. A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the administration decision to end DACA was arbitrary and capricious.

Barr said Trump “lost much of his leverage” in negotiations with congressional Democrats, who were pushing for a permanent solution for DACA recipients, after one district court judge issued an order forcing the administration to maintain the program nationwide.

“Unsurprisingly, those negotiations did not lead to a deal,” Barr said.

In his speech to the American Law Institute, Barr argued it isn’t about partisanship and said the approach taken by judges who issue these nationwide rulings departs not only from the limitations of the Constitution, but also from the “traditional understanding of the role of courts.” The Justice Department will continue to oppose such rulings, he said.

“Nationwide injunctions not only allow district courts to wield unprecedented power, they also allow district courts to wield it asymmetrically,” Barr said.

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Follow Balsamo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1 .

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Barr launches new probe of ‘spying’ on Trump

Attorney General William Barr (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Attorney General William Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney to examine the origins of the Russia investigation and determine if intelligence collection involving the Trump campaign was “lawful and appropriate,” a person familiar with the issue told The Associated Press on Monday.

Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to conduct the inquiry, the person said. The person could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Durham’s appointment comes about a month after Barr told members of Congress he believed “spying did occur” on the Trump campaign in 2016. He later said he didn’t mean anything pejorative and was gathering a team to look into the origins of the special counsel’s investigation.

Barr provided no details about what “spying” may have taken place but appeared to be alluding to a surveillance warrant the FBI obtained on a former Trump associate, Carter Page, and the FBI’s use of an informant while the bureau was investigating former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

Trump and his supporters have seized on both to accuse the Justice Department and the FBI of unlawfully spying on his campaign.

The inquiry, which will focus on whether the government’s methods to collect intelligence relating to the Trump campaign were lawful and appropriate, is separate from an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The agency’s watchdog is also examining the Russia probe’s origins and Barr has said he expects the watchdog report to be done in May or June.

Congressional Republicans have also indicated they intend to examine how the investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years began and whether there are any legal concerns.

The recently concluded investigation from special counsel Robert Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and the Kremlin to tip the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Durham is a career prosecutor who was nominated for his post as U.S. attorney in Connecticut by Trump. He has previously investigated law enforcement corruption, the destruction of CIA videotapes and the Boston FBI office’s relationship with mobsters.

In nominating him, the White House said Durham and other nominees for U.S. attorney jobs share Trump’s vision for “making America safe again.”

Durham was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2018. At the time, Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, called Durham a “fierce, fair prosecutor” who knows how to try tough cases.

In addition to conducting the inquiry, Durham will continue to serve as the chief federal prosecutor in Connecticut.
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