The New York Times and other papers are reporting that Attorney General William Barr refused a request from President Donald Trump to hold a news conference to declare that Trump did not violate any laws in his telephone call with Ukraine’s president. I have known Barr for years and I am not surprised by the report. If such a call to Barr was made, it was inappropriate and shows that the President is still acting incautiously and impetuously in managing these scandals. With various investigations going forward on the Ukrainian matter, it would have been deeply troubling for Barr to make such a statement. While no crime has been identified, there could be potential criminal conduct related to the call as well as questions of the abuse of power. Trump has denied the report.
What concerns me is that Trump is continuing to trip wires on such issues. The Russian investigation led to the appointment of a Special Counsel entirely because Trump took the clearly unwise move of firing James Comey in the middle of the investigation. He could have fired Comey at the start of his term or after the investigation. With the exception of Jared Kushner, virtually the entire staff of the White House reportedly told Trump that the firing would cause a huge mess.
Trump has continued to trip wires in other calls to officials, including his reported demand to fire key players like Robert Mueller. He routinely crosses lines of separation with the Justice Department. This is yet another such example. It is deeply disturbing to reach out to the Attorney General to ask for such a press conference. It is the equivalent of asking for a preemptive advisory opinion from a court. Such a press conference would have been unwarranted and unwise for any Attorney General.
I have defended Barr from critics not because of our long friendship but because I believe that he has carried out his promises from his confirmation (I testified in favor of his confirmation). I have not hesitated to criticize him when I disagree with his decisions. However, Barr has protected all of the investigations into the 2016 election — Mueller, Horowitz, and Durham — from interference or pressure. If you look at his record objectively, it has been successful in protecting the Justice Department. This is not always easy and requires maintaining a sometimes difficult relationship with a president who does not respect traditional limits or lines. However, this report highlights how he maintains that relationship while maintaining the integrity of his department.
This does not mean that Barr will not stumble or err in this difficult position with the President. When he does, I will be the first to call him out. However, if true, this was again the right call by Bill Barr.