Questions raised about attorney general and DOJ legal opinion as whistleblower complaint is released
President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The whistleblower complaint released by Congress on Thursday says President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is “a central figure” in Trump's effort to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr “appears to be involved as well.”
Even before the release of the whistleblower complaint, some Democrats were criticizing the Department of Justice for its actions in the controversy, report the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The department released a legal opinion finding that there was no need to release the complaint to Congress and concluded that Trump did not violate campaign finance laws when he urged the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.
The whistleblower was not present during Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the unclassified version of the complaint made public. The whistleblower’s statement about Barr appeared to be mostly based on Trump’s references to the attorney general during the phone call.
Trump asked Zelensky to investigate whether Biden stopped a prosecution of his son in connection with his work for a gas company in Ukraine. Trump also sought an investigation into the origins of the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump told Zelensky that he would ask Barr and Giuliani to give Zelensky a call.
Multiple government officials told the whistleblower that White House officials had intervened “to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary—by the White House Situation Room.”
White House lawyers directed that the electronic transcript of the call be removed from the usual computer system, the complaint says. It was then loaded into a separate system used to store and handle classified information, the whistleblower said. It was not the first time that a transcript was placed in a password-protected system solely to protect information that was politically sensitive rather than for national security purposes, according to the complaint.
The transcript of Trump’s call released Wednesday included a note saying that it was based on notes and recollections and was not a verbatim record of the call.
The legal opinion by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel had concluded that the whistleblower complaint didn’t have to be turned over to Congress, according to prior reporting by BuzzFeed News. The opinion said the federal law requiring expedited reporting of intelligence agency misconduct didn’t apply because the complaint didn’t concern the operation of an intelligence agency.
A DOJ statement released Wednesday said Trump did not speak with Barr about Biden and Ukraine. In addition, the statement said, Barr has not communicated with Ukraine on any matter and has not discussed the matter with Giuliani.
The DOJ had reviewed the call transcript and determined that it did not violate campaign finance laws that ban the solicitation of campaign contributions from foreign sources. The DOJ reviewers concluded that seeking help with a government investigation was not a “thing of value” under the law, a source previously told the Washington Post.
The whistleblower also referred to Barr when referencing statements by then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko to the Hill publication. Lutsenko asserted that there was evidence Ukrainian officials had interfered with the 2016 election in collaboration with the Democratic National Committee.
Lutsenko also said that then-Vice President Biden had pressured the Ukrainian president in 2016 to fire a former prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, to quash a probe into Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings. Biden’s son was a paid board member for Burisma.
Trump was apparently referring to Shokin when he told Zelensky, “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.”
Biden did pressure the Ukrainian president to fire Shokin, but he was acting on behalf of the U.S. government. The AP reports that Shokin was accused of closing the probe into a former government minister who indirectly controlled Burisma, and Shokin never actively investigated Hunter Biden’s work.
Lutsenko told a publication in April that he had spoken with Giuliani about arranging contact with Barr, according to the whistleblower complaint The next month, Barr announced that he was initiating a probe into the origins of the Russia investigation. Guiliani told Fox News that the prosecutor leading the probe, U.S. Attorney John Durham, was spending a lot of time in Europe because he was investigating Ukraine.
The DOJ’s statement Wednesday acknowledged that Durham “is separately exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”
The whistleblower said in the complaint that they don’t “know the extent to which, if at all, Mr. Giuliani is directly coordinating his efforts on Ukraine with Attorney General Barr or Mr. Durham.”
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that the House of Representatives will begin a formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump because of concerns about the phone call.