Attorney General William Barr briefly attended a meeting at the Justice Department last fall between top criminal prosecutors and President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, a department official said Friday.
The meeting reveals a previously undisclosed interaction between two men the President depends on to defend him.
Justice officials have sought to distance the department and Barr from Giuliani since it became clear in recent months that the former New York mayor is the subject of an investigation by Manhattan federal prosecutors. Giuliani was a part of a team of defense attorneys representing a Venezuelan client when they met with Justice Department officials.
The two men are said not to be close despite their roles as top legal advisers to the President. Barr has kept a notable distance even while Trump mentioned them both together in a July phone call in which he urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Giuliani and Barr to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden. Justice officials have said Barr has never spoken to Giuliani about Ukraine and hasn’t taken any action to investigate the Bidens.
The Giuliani meeting at the Justice Department in September became public months ago in the wake of the arrest of two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were working on Giuliani’s Ukraine mission for the President.
Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, issued a public statement at the time expressing regret for holding the meeting and saying he wouldn’t have met with Trump’s personal lawyer had he known about Giuliani’s role in the ongoing investigation.
But department officials didn’t mention then that Barr was also in the meeting. Barr was at the meeting for about 10 minutes and had dropped in to greet other lawyers who worked alongside Giuliani to represent the Venezuelan businessman, according to a Justice Department official. His presence is also notable because Justice officials have said he was briefed after taking office in February on the investigation by Manhattan federal prosecutors into Parnas and Fruman, and the connections with Giuliani.
“At the time the Attorney General was briefed on the Parnas investigation, he was not informed of any allegation of wrongdoing involving Rudy Giuliani,” said Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, in a statement.
A Justice official said that up to the time of the Venezuela meeting, Barr hadn’t been briefed on any allegations of wrongdoing by Giuliani. Following its standard practice, the department hasn’t officially acknowledged that there is an investigation of Giuliani.
The September meeting, led by attorneys from the Justice Department’s fraud section, was unremarkable, and sit-downs of the kind are a common practice in high-stakes investigations. What’s unusual is for the attorney general to be involved. High-profile attorneys often demand meetings to make their case with top Justice officials, and usually have to settle for prosecutors much lower in the chain of command, if they get a meeting at all.
Giuliani and a team of lawyers made a presentation to department officials on behalf of their client, a Venezuelan energy executive who was hoping to stave off criminal charges connected to a billion dollar money-laundering case filed in Florida last year, a Justice official said. The Washington Post first reported the purpose of the meeting.
Giuliani’s mission in Ukraine to dig up dirt on the Biden’s did not come up in the meeting, the official said, and the Justice Department has maintained that the two have never spoken about the topic. Barr did not participate substantively in the meeting for the few minutes that he was there, the official said.
Barr had greater participation in another meeting around the same time with other lawyers connected to Trump. Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing used their August meeting to ask for the attorney general to intervene on behalf of Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman who is the subject of an extradition request by federal prosecutors in Chicago.
Toensing and DiGenova are also proponents of Giuliani’s effort to seek help from Ukraine for information on allegations that a previous Ukrainian regime attempted to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. The Ukraine election interference claims are propagated by the Russian government, which has sought to deny that Russian intelligence meddled in the election to help Trump.
Barr’s ties to DiGenova and Toensing — and his contact with Giuliani — have re-emerged in claims made by Parnas, who has broken with Giuliani. Parnas has tried to claim in recent interviews, including with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, that Barr had more knowledge about Giuliani’s Ukraine work than has been known. Parnas has not provided evidence for his claims.
Kupec has called that claim “100% false.”
A Justice Department official said that in his meeting with DiGenova and Toensing, Barr declined to intercede in the Firtash case.
If DiGenova and Toensing’s decision to advocate for Firtash was related to a deal to get information from Firtash about Ukraine and the Bidens, as Parnas alleges, “the Department and the Attorney General did not know about it,” the official said.