Trump wanted William Barr to hold news conference saying president broke no laws in call with Ukrainian leader
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump wanted Attorney General William Barr to hold a news conference declaring that the commander in chief had broken no laws during a phone call in which he pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a political rival, though Barr ultimately declined to do so, people familiar with the matter said.
The request from Trump traveled from the president to other White House officials and eventually to the Justice Department. The president has mentioned Barr's demurral to associates in recent weeks, saying he wished Barr would have held the news conference, Trump advisers say.
In recent weeks, the Justice Department has sought some distance from the White House, particularly on matters relating to the burgeoning controversy over Trump's dealings on Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry they sparked.
People close to the administration say Barr and Trump remain on good terms. A senior administration official said Trump praised the attorney general publicly and privately Wednesday, and deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement: "The President has nothing but respect for AG Barr and greatly appreciates the work he's done on behalf of the country - and no amount of shady sources with clear intent to divide, smear, and slander will change that."
But those close to the administration also concede that the department has made several recent maneuvers putting it at odds with the White House at a particularly precarious time for the president. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the politically fraught situation.
The request for the news conference came sometime around Sept. 25, when the administration released a rough transcript of the president's July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The document showed that Trump urged Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden - while dangling a possible White House visit for the foreign leader.
By then, a whistleblower complaint about the call had moved congressional Democrats to launch the impeachment inquiry, and the administration was on the defensive. As the rough transcript was released, a Justice Department spokeswoman said officials had evaluated it and the whistleblower complaint to see whether campaign finance laws had been broken, determined that none had been and decided "no further action was warranted."
It was not immediately clear why Barr would not go beyond that statement with a publicly televised assertion that the president broke no laws, nor was it clear how forcefully the president's desire was communicated. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. A senior administration official said, "The DOJ did in fact release a statement about the call and the claim that it resulted in tension because it wasn't a news conference is completely false."
From the moment the administration released the rough transcript, Barr made clear that whatever the president was up to, he was not a party to it.
Though the rough transcript shows Trump offering Zelensky the services of his attorney general to aid investigations of Biden and his son, a Barr spokeswoman said Barr and Trump had never discussed that.
"The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former vice president Biden or his son," spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement released at the same time as the rough transcript. "The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine - on this or any other matter. The Attorney General has not communicated with Ukraine - on this or any other subject."
It would not be the last time the Justice Department would dissociate itself from the White House on a matter relevant to the impeachment inquiry. After White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said at a televised briefing last month that Ukraine's cooperation in the investigations Trump wanted was tied to hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that the U.S. had withheld from Kyiv, a Justice Department official quickly made clear to reporters that the department did not endorse that position.
"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," the official said.
The department - and Barr in particular - has similarly sought separation from Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer who was leading the effort to investigate the Bidens.
In addition to asserting that Barr and Trump had never discussed investigating the Bidens, Kupec said in her statement that the attorney general had not "discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani." Barr's allies had previously confided to reporters that the attorney general was unhappy with Giuliani, particularly over his going outside of normal channels to pursue investigations of interest to the president.