Attorney general declined Trump request to declare nothing illegal in Ukraine call

Attorney General William Barr
Attorney General William BarrAlex Brandon/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Trump asked that Attorney General William Barr hold a news conference to declare that he had broken no laws in a telephone call with Ukraine’s president that is now at the heart of the Democratic impeachment inquiry, but Barr declined, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Trump’s request came shortly after the White House released a reconstructed transcript of a July 25 call in which the president pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to launch investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and other Democrats. An intelligence whistle-blower pointed to the call as evidence that the president had tried to enlist a foreign power to help him in the 2020 presidential election, and House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into whether the president’s conduct warranted his removal from office.


Trump, who has aggressively pushed Republicans and administration officials to say he did nothing wrong, has repeatedly said the call was “perfect.” In the days after the reconstructed transcript was released to the public, the White House told the Justice Department of Trump’s desire for Barr to appear publicly, according to the person who was told of it. The request was first reported by The Washington Post.

Trump tweeted early Thursday that the claim ‘‘is totally untrue and just another FAKE NEWS story with anonymous sources that don’t exist.’’

The president also continued to lash out at the press, declaring ‘‘The LameStream Media’’ to be the ‘‘Enemy of the People.’’

The president wanted Barr to personally deliver the message to the news media that Trump had done nothing wrong, much as he did in a news conference he held shortly before the release of the report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, according to a person with knowledge of the events.


It was hardly the first time that Trump has sought to pressure his chief law enforcement official to defend him more aggressively in the face of what he considered an existential crisis. The president never got over his rage at Jeff Sessions, his former attorney general, for recusing himself from Mueller’s investigation, and tried repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — to get Sessions to insert himself into that inquiry on Trump’s behalf.

A Justice Department spokeswoman put out a statement after the release of the whistle-blower complaint about the call, saying that the criminal division had reviewed the official record of the conversation and determined that “there was no campaign finance violation and that no further action was warranted.” That satisfied Trump, according to one of the people with knowledge of what took place, and aides were able to redirect his concerns.

Barr had been involved in the decision to release the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky, according to multiple White House officials, and a Justice Department official said at the time that he supported the idea of being transparent. But Barr decided against holding the news conference.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary, said, “The president has nothing but respect for A.G. Barr and greatly appreciates the work he’s done on behalf of the country, and no amount of shady sources with clear intent to divide, smear, and slander will change that.”


At various points since the impeachment inquiry began, Trump has complained that people in his administration have not done more to defend him, multiple people close to the president said. The president’s complaint prompted Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to try to defend Trump at an appearance in front of reporters last month.

During that briefing, Mulvaney initially acknowledged the existence of a quid pro quo linking military assistance for Ukraine to the country’s willingness to start investigations Trump demanded, before insisting several hours later that he had not said that.

Democratic investigators in the House have spent the past several weeks methodically trying to build a case for impeachment that goes well beyond the July 25 call, interviewing current and former administration officials who have testified to the existence of a shadow diplomatic effort aimed at pressuring Ukraine.

But Trump’s telephone call with Zelensky remains the most direct evidence of the president’s involvement. During the call, Zelensky thanked Trump for delivering military aid to help in their fight against Russian aggression, including antitank weapons.

“I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump responded, shifting the conversation toward investigating Democrats and urging Zelensky that he work with Barr and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.

Barr has been investigating the origins of the Russia investigation that Trump has long called “a hoax.” The attorney general appointed the US attorney John H. Durham to look in to how the Mueller inquiry began and whether the intelligence community did anything improper related to collecting information about the Trump campaign.


The president has repeatedly called for an inquiry into the Russia investigators, and Barr’s willingness to pursue it over the past several months has pleased Trump and helped cement what people close to the two men say is a good relationship between them.

Barr famously held a news conference ahead of the release of Mueller’s report into Russian election meddling. Barr painted what many saw as an overly flattering picture as it related to Trump and repeatedly declared investigators had found ‘‘no collusion’’ between the Trump campaign and Russia, a point Trump had seized on to try to claim vindication.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.