Former national security adviser John Bolton and his forthcoming book are threatening to draw Attorney General William Barr into the impeachment political fight that Barr has deftly avoided for months.
Private conversations between Bolton and Barr, who have known each other for decades, are featured in Bolton’s draft manuscript for his book, appearing to lend credibility to some of Bolton’s sharpest critiques of the president who fired him.
That credibility is key if Bolton is to be called as a witness in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. And it could thrust Barr back into the crosshairs of Democrats, who long have accused the attorney general of defending the President at the cost of the Justice Department’s independence.
Barr has not publicly addressed Bolton’s claims. When asked about the impeachment proceedings Tuesday during an interview with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan on satellite radio, Barr reiterated that the Justice Department does not have a role in them.
“The Justice Department isn’t playing a role in that,” he said. “It’s legislative, and then the President’s legal team is representing him. The Justice Department obviously represents the United States.”
Barr, through a spokeswoman, has pushed back on Bolton’s account of their talks, disputing Bolton’s claim that Barr had discussed with him concerns that the President was intervening in Justice Department matters to do favors for the autocratic leaders of Turkey and China. Barr also disputes another Bolton claim that he warned the attorney general in the days following a July 25 Trump call with Ukraine’s President that Trump had mentioned Barr’s name on the now-infamous call.
The accounts from Bolton appear to show him trying to appeal to Barr and, to some extent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for help to contain actions by Trump that he thought were contrary to US policy. That Barr had contemporaneous discussions with Bolton, and perhaps even records or notes of any such conversations, could set up future questions on which lawmakers could press the attorney general.
Barr has managed to steer clear of the Ukraine scandal. But Bolton’s claims could bring new attention to the key period last summer when Rudy Giuliani and the President’s other lawyers with whom he was working Ukraine issues, Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, were trying to get the Justice Department to pay attention to some of the discredited claims that have become the heart of the impeachment drama.
Justice officials have confirmed there were calls between Barr and Bolton. The Bolton accounts align in some ways with what officials have separately described behind the scenes. But they differ in other ways.
The New York Times reported, citing the draft Bolton manuscript, that Bolton claimed he and Barr had discussed shared concerns about the President’s actions related to the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE, and Trump’s reported conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about a Justice Department probe of Halkbank, the Turkish bank that US federal prosecutors charged last year with money laundering and other offenses.
Barr, through his spokeswoman, disputed that he made the comments about the President that Bolton has attributed to him.
ZTE and Turkey
Trump lifted sanctions on ZTE in 2018, before Barr became attorney general, so it’s unclear why that would have been a subject of conversation last year between Bolton and Barr. ZTE previously had run afoul of US sanctions on Iran and North Korea. On Halkbank, Bolton’s account appears to align with what other officials have described. Turkish officials have sought to use Erdogan’s ties to Trump to try to stop the US actions against Halkbank, according to US officials briefed on the matter.
Bolton’s book accounts could have more relevance when lawmakers turn their attention to the Justice Department and Barr’s handling of the whistleblower complaint over the President’s July 25 Ukraine call. Democrats have said they’ll return to the issue.
Bolton, in an account detailed in the book draft, complained to the attorney general in the days after the call about Giuliani’s efforts on Trump’s behalf in Ukraine. A Justice official confirms that during their own call Bolton complained to Barr that Giuliani was acting like a secretary of state and an attorney general, causing confusion about the official US government policy in the country.
Their call would have come around the time the whistleblower first raised concerns about the Trump-Ukraine call at the CIA. It came weeks before the Justice Department received a criminal referral based on the whistleblower complaint.
DiGenova and Toensing met with Barr last August to press the case of another client. Giuliani landed his own Justice Department meeting in September, including a drop-in by Barr, on a separate matter.
Justice officials have said Barr did not learn until mid-August that his name had been mentioned on the President’s Ukraine call. Officials also have said that while Barr was briefed by prosecutors in New York’s southern district about an investigation into Giuliani’s associates, he wasn’t aware at the time of the Giuliani Justice Department meeting in September that the President’s personal lawyer’s role had grown to be a major focus of the New York investigation.
By Bolton’s account, Barr should have been more aware of the issues surrounding Giuliani even before the whisteblower complaint prompted a criminal referral to Justice prosecutors in late August.
Giuliani and Ukraine
Trump was impeached last month after he pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rival ahead of the 2020 election while withholding a White House meeting and $400 million in US security aid from Kiev.
Witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry testified last year that Giuliani had led the Ukraine effort on behalf of the President, and had worked alongside two Soviet-born businessmen as far back as 2018 to engage with Ukrainian officials and solicit damaging information about former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate.
Barr has distanced himself from Giuliani as the impeachment inquiry has unfolded, and is said to have warned Trump that his lawyer was doing him a disservice in television appearances after the special counsel report was released last year.
But little so far has been revealed about Barr’s possible awareness of Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine before they factored into the whistleblower complaint that kick-started the impeachment process.
In his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump mentioned Giuliani and Barr three times, telling the new leader that he would have the men reach out regarding Biden and a separate conspiracy theory involving Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US election.
By late August, the Justice Department had opened a narrow review of potential campaign finance law violations by Trump based on his call with Zelensky. That preliminary investigation lasted only three weeks and didn’t include interviews with relevant witnesses, drawing criticism from congressional Democrats.
Giuliani’s work in Ukraine had become public knowledge by spring of last year. He told The New York Times in May that he was planning to travel to Kiev to push then-President-elect Zelensky to pursue investigations into the Bidens and the origins of Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
In the weeks before that, allegations about Biden and his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine as well as about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election began to appear in conservative news outlets — the result of a public relations campaign engineered by Giuliani and a number of other Trump-aligned attorneys and investigators.
Trump has repeatedly made unfounded and false claims to allege that the Bidens acted improperly in Ukraine. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden, and theories about Ukrainian election interference have been consistently debunked.
Still, in April, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity in an interview that Barr should consider looking into the claims of Ukrainian meddling.
“He’s very smart and he’s very tough and I would certainly defer to him, but I would imagine he would want to see this,” Trump said.
The Justice Department has said Trump never asked Barr to contact Ukraine about the Bidens or any other matter. Barr has also not discussed any matters related to Ukraine with Giuliani, according to the department.