Trump's Ukraine call was referred to DOJ as possible crime. Barr's team shut it down

Bill Barr's DOJ rejected two criminal referrals about the Zelensky phone call — in which Barr was mentioned

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published September 25, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

Attorney General William Barr speaks about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Attorney General William Barr speaks about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The intelligence community inspector general and director of national intelligence submitted two criminal referrals to the Justice Department after receiving an “urgent” whistleblower complaint about President Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine. In response, the DOJ’s criminal division decided not to act, the department revealed Wednesday.

In August, the intelligence community’s inspector general submitted a criminal referral to the Justice Department after receiving the now-famous whistleblower complaint related to Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. The inspector general’s report cited Trump’s call with Zelensky as a “potential violation of federal campaign finance law.”

The DOJ’s Criminal Division reviewed the referral and determined “there was no campaign finance violation,” Kupec said.

The DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a statement acknowledging that the inspector general found the allegations in the complaint “credible” but argued that the content of the call did not amount to a “thing of value,” which is required to pursue a campaign finance violation.

Kupec did not mention that the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, separately submitted a criminal referral to the DOJ, as The New York Times reported.

Kupec also did not mention that the DOJ officials who reviewed the referral did not consider the suggestion that Trump blocked congressionally-approved military aid to Ukraine days before the call as part of his pressure on Zelensky to pursue an investigation into the Bidens, as the The Wall Street Journal reported.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr requesting all documents related to the complaint, asking about the department’s "involvement, analysis, review and participation" in regards to the whistleblower complaint, which has not been released to Congress. 

Schiff previously said that the Trump administration’s move to block the whistleblower complaint from Congress raised “grave concerns” that the Justice Department was “engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible 'serious or flagrant' misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law."   

Not only did Barr’s DOJ fail to act on the referral and actively blocked the whistleblower complaint from getting to Congress, but Barr was repeatedly cited by Trump in a four-page partial transcript of his call with Zelensky about Biden.

The White House released a memo of the phone call, based on notes taken by Trump administration staffers, showing that Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate Biden and help discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Though the partial transcript of the 30-minute call does not include a mention of an explicit quid pro quo, the call came just days after Trump blocked aid to Ukraine.

After mentioning Mueller’s probe and Ukraine’s ties to the investigation, Trump told Zelensky that he would “like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Later in the call, Trump urged Zelensky to work with Barr, as well as with Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, about investigating Biden’s involvement in removing a Ukrainian prosecutor who had investigated an energy firm his son, Hunter Biden, worked for. Biden’s intervention came after the probe was already inactive and reflected the consensus of many Western nations. Ukraine’s top prosecutor has said that neither Biden had ever been accused of wrongdoing in the country.

“A lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump told Zelensky.

Schiff said after the memo was released that Barr’s involvement “adds another layer of depravity” to the call. The DOJ denied that Barr was aware he was mentioned on the call and said he was never asked to speak to Zelensky.

“Now, I know the attorney general is denying involvement in this, but nonetheless you can see why the Department of Justice would want this transcript never to see the light of day,” Schiff said. “You can see why they have worked so hard to deprive our committee of the whistleblower complaint.”

Schiff said the request for the DOJ’s documents related to the complaint was part of the House’s “formal impeachment inquiry,” which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Wednesday that Barr “at a minimum” must “recuse himself” from Ukraine-related matters. 

Barr has been accused of acting more as Trump’s personal lawyer than the attorney general. He was widely criticized for releasing a summary of the Mueller report that included conclusions starkly different from those in the actual report. Just this week Barr threatened to intervene to block the state of New York from investigating Trump. 

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., demanded that Barr testify about his involvement on Ukraine in front of Congress.

Harris, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Barr in May whether Trump had suggested that he investigate anyone.

Barr struggled to answer and said he was "trying to grapple with the word 'suggest.'"

“There have been discussions of, of matters out there that, uh — they have not asked me to open an investigation," he said.

“Barr needs to come back to Congress and answer that question again. Under oath,” Harris wrote. “This time, he better have an answer.”


By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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