It’s hard to recall anything that Donald Trump has touched which initially looked bad but eventually turned out to be nothing. With Trump, things are always worse than they appear. Throughout his recent career, that has usually ended up hurting those closest to Trump more than the president himself. If that pattern holds true in the growing Ukraine scandal, then several top members of Trump’s administration should be worried right now. This is likely to get real messy before it ends.
While attempting to defend himself from accusations that he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. military aid during at least one phone call — a reconstructed transcript, or "memo" of which was released on Wednesday — Trump gratuitously dragged his vice president into the middle of his mess.
"I think you should ask for VP Pence's conversation because he had a couple of conversations also," Trump told reporters during a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations summit. "I could save you a lot of time. They were all perfect. Nothing was mentioned of any import other than congratulations."
Of course, Trump previously described his own call with Zelensky as "perfect.” An aide to the Ukrainian president has since told ABC News that “it was clear that Trump will only have communications if they will discuss the Biden case.”
Earlier this month, Pence met with Zelensky and promised to relay to Trump just how hard Ukraine was working to fight corruption — a term Trump has repeatedly used to explain his interest in getting Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who was formerly employed by a Ukrainian gas company. When Pence was asked if U.S. aid was being held up over Ukraine’s failure to investigate Biden, he acknowledged that “as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.” A week after Pence met with Zelensky, U.S. military aid was finally released to Ukraine.
Another Trump confidant looks to be tangled up in this sordid bullying of Ukraine as well. When Trump ordered military aid to the nation to be frozen earlier this year, he reportedly went through his acting chief of staff and budget director Mick Mulvaney, to the chagrin of Pentagon officials.
Finally, Attorney General Bill Barr appears to be most implicated by the recent revelations on Ukraine.
As Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., told CNN after reading the whistleblower report Barr attempted to withhold from Congress, it appears the attorney general has once again been caught playing interference for the White House. "All I can tell you is they're doing the very same thing here," Quigley told CNN, comparing Barr’s rationale for blocking the whistleblower report to his summary of Robert Mueller’s report earlier this year. In his four-page summary of the Mueller report, Barr downplayed the documented episodes of Trump's obstruction of justice, writing that he found no evidence to support criminal charges. As Barr later admitted, he had not read the Mueller report in its entirety before writing that summary.
As the White House summary of Trump’s July call with Zelensky notes (there was reportedly also an April call), the president mentioned four times that he wanted Barr to speak with the Ukrainian government about launching an investigation into Biden. As the New York Times reports, both the director of national intelligence and the inspector general of the intelligence community referred the whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s communications to the Justice Department Curiously, Barr’s DOJ took less than a month to abandon an inquiry into Trump’s communications with Zelensky, concluding that the complaint could not even trigger an investigation because the allegations could not involve a crime.
While Barr’s DOJ released a statement denying that Barr had any contact with the Ukrainians, it is increasingly difficult to believe an attorney general who has already been held in contempt of Congress for previously faulty testimony. As Sen. Kamala Harris recalled on Wednesday, Barr previously testified under oath that he had never been directed by the president to investigate a political rival. Remarkably, a month before that, Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he ordered Barr to look into Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.
Barr, like Pence and Mulvaney, basically begged to get into Trump’s swampland. He leapt out of retirement to become one of the architects of Trump’s assault on our democracy. He is not a bumbler who was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and was too weak to resist being corrupted. He came corrupt.
But Barr, like Trump’s personal lawyers Michael Cohen and Rudy Giuliani, doesn’t actually care about corruption. More than likely, he’s playing for the Fox News retirement plan. Every lie has told on behalf of Trump is another badge of honor.