It’s not yet clear how Barr will characterize Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report, which is due out Monday amid reports that the attorney general disagrees with some of its findings. The risk, for Barr, is that Horowitz and the broader review led by U.S. Attorney John Durham won’t produce the kind of narrative-shifting revelations Trump wants — assuming Durham ever produces any findings at all.
Barr still seems confident in his relationship with Trump, however, which has likely been bolstered by the attorney general’s public denunciations of the so-called “resistance.” In a recent speech to the conservative Federalist Society, Barr described the term used by some opposed to Trump as “a very dangerous and indeed incendiary notion to import into the politics of a democratic republic.”
The attorney general also laid some ground rules with the president early on in his tenure, he told New York Magazine for a recent profile.
“Right from the very beginning, the president made clear to me, and we discussed, that he will not get into the business of talking about, or asking me, either to pursue, or not to pursue, cases,” Barr said. “He leaves that up to my judgment.”
To that end, perhaps, Barr has been careful to distance himself from the Ukraine scandal — and from Giuliani.
On the morning the White House published the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, the Justice Department denied that Barr had ever talked to the president about his efforts to pressure Zelensky into investigating Democrats.
“The president has not spoken with the attorney general about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The president has not asked the attorney general to contact Ukraine — on this or any other matter,” spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement released at the same time as the Zelensky call record, which showed Trump offering to have Barr call the Ukrainian president.
“The attorney general has not communicated with Ukraine — on this or any other subject. Nor has the attorney general discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani,” Kupec said.
The Justice Department again distanced Barr from the Ukraine caper after Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, claimed that military aid to the Ukrainian government had been withheld in part to verify “whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice.”
“If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us,” a DOJ spokesperson said at the time.
It’s unclear if Barr himself has directly crossed paths with Giuliani, but at least one senior Trump appointee at the Justice Department earlier this summer met with the former New York mayor to hear his pitch for leniency in the case of one of his foreign clients, Alejandro Betancourt Lopez, according to the Washington Post. Lopez is a Venezuelan energy executive under scrutiny for possible money laundering and bribery.
The revelation of that encounter led to still more DOJ distancing — a department spokesman said that top officials wouldn’t have taken the meeting with Giuliani had they known at the time of an active investigation from the Southern District of New York into two Giuliani associates who have since been indicted on campaign finance charges. The men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, acted as intermediaries for Giuliani in Ukraine and at one point reportedly tried to recruit a top Ukrainian energy official to wage a takeover of the country’s state-owned oil and gas company, Naftogaz.
While Barr was airing his doubts about the Russia probe in media interviews, Giuliani was working outside official channels with foreign nationals to find evidence that would “be very, very helpful to my client,” as he told the New York Times in May, referring to Trump.
He primarily sought the State Department’s help, coordinating regularly with the U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker in an effort to pressure Zelensky into investigating the Bidens and 2016 election interference.
But Giuliani apparently spurned the advice of State Department officials, who suggested that any wrongdoing by Americans be pursued through official Justice Department channels. “What is proper and what happens frequently is the United States goes to Ukraine and asks for their help to pursue an investigation of violations of American law,” the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, told impeachment investigators. “That’s what we have a mutual legal assistance treaty, an MLAT, for. But this is different.”
Giuliani has now been sidelined from formally working to defend Trump from impeachment, but his Ukraine sleuthing goes on. He traveled to Budapest and Kyiv last week with a far-right news outlet, where he met with several of the figures at the center of the impeachment proceedings including Lutsenko and former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin—all while under a federal criminal investigation by Barr’s Justice Department.
“I hear he’s found plenty,” Trump told reporters Saturday when asked about Giuliani’s trip. The president added that his personal attorney, a former top Reagan-era Justice Department official, was “one of the great crime fighters of the last 50 years” with plans to roll out his findings to Congress, Barr and the DOJ.
Trump allies who have embraced Barr, meanwhile, would more than welcome Giuliani exiting stage left. The challenge is that Trump perceives Giuliani — “my Rudy,” as he calls him — as a peer dating back to their days gracing the New York tabloids together.
“I think there’s a level of celebrity involved,” said a person who has worked for the president who isn’t pleased with how Giuliani’s efforts have upended the Trump agenda. “And it’s probably not helpful.”
Even Sondland, Giuliani’s collaborator on the Ukraine caper, privately groused to other State Department officials: “Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and fucks everything up.”
Jon Sale, a former personal attorney and longtime friend to Giuliani, bemoaned the criticism of the former New York mayor. “Everyone wants to blame Rudy for all the world’s woes,” he said.
Compared with Giuliani, Barr has arguably had far more success in shielding Trump — a campaign that began even before he took the attorney general job, when he wrote an unsolicited 20-page legal brief attacking the Mueller probe as a “fatally misconceived” assault on presidential power.
Months later, the newly minted DOJ leader outmaneuvered Mueller, his friend and former underling during the Bush years, when he took advantage of the special counsel’s narrow interpretation of his mandate to clear the president of wrongdoing before the special counsel’s report was made public.
Then, after the document’s release, Barr’s Justice Department worked to stymie House investigators in their efforts to obtain documents and testimony from Mueller’s witnesses. Democrats ended up stuck in protracted court battles that could be moot by the time they’re over — either because Trump is no longer in office, or because the Senate will have already voted against conviction.
Barr’s DOJ has taken other steps widely seen as benefiting Trump. The department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the whistleblower complaint that helped trigger the impeachment inquiry did not have to be shared with the congressional intelligence committees, despite the Intelligence Community inspector general’s conclusion that it rose to the level of an “urgent concern” requiring notification to lawmakers.
And the Justice Department in September also declined to pursue a criminal investigation into potential campaign finance violations by Trump and his associates related to their demands for dirt on Biden.
Some legal experts say that decision reeked of politics.
“You’d normally think, yes, that professional prosecutors would feel an obligation to look into these situations,” said Philip Allen Lacovara, a former Watergate counsel. “But the leadership, including the attorney general, deputy attorney general, and the head of the criminal division all seem to be quite comfortable with ring-fencing the president on any of these activities.”
Still, Honig noted, Barr has decidedly less influence over the Ukraine investigation. Whereas Barr was able to release his own summary of Mueller’s findings before the full report was made public, preemptively shaping the narrative around the probe’s conclusions, he doesn’t have any authority over Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.