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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

AG William Barr asserts state power while bending to Trump's unusual demands

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, seen during a

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, seen during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Monday. Credit: Bloomberg / Yuri Gripas

Last weekend the U.S. Justice Department, under Attorney General William Barr, volunteered an unusual statement regarding Rudy Giuliani, who keeps his fame alive as President Donald Trump's lawyer and television advocate.

The background: Several weeks ago, Brian A. Benczkowski, who heads the department's criminal division, and several fraud-unit lawyers met with the ex-mayor regarding a bribery case involving clients he was representing.

Since then two political and business associates of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who are reportedly involved in the current Ukraine intrigue, have been charged with conspiracy and falsification of records in an illegal campaign-finance scheme, along with two other co-defendants.

Giuliani's actions are said to be under scrutiny by the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan, but he hasn't been charged with wrongdoing.  

The department's statement said that when Benczkowski and staff met with Giuliani, "they were not aware of any investigation of Mr. Giuliani’s associates in the Southern District of New York and would not have met with him had they known."

Which defendants had a stake in the meeting, and why Giuliani now needed to be kept at an official distance, went unexplained.

Barr seems to have little use for being associated with Giuliani, who may have infringed on the State Department's traditional turf by personally pushing Ukrainian government officials for probes geared toward damaging Trump's American political rivals.

Last month Barr was pulled into the impeachment uproar with the release of a reconstructed "transcript" of Trump's July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. The president let it be known he wanted rival Joe Biden and his son investigated. He advised Zelensky to work with both Giuliani and Barr. He drew no clear distinction in their roles.

The Wall Street Journal reported Barr to have been "angry and upset" that he and Giuliani had been lumped together in this way.

But despite his institutional role, Barr also was willing to go on a Trump mission overseas fraught with election interest.

A special project overseen and guided by Barr provides a prime talking point these days for pro-Trump media. U.S. Attorney John Durham from Connecticut is said to be scrutinizing the origins of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

This leads some in the flock to hope that the Justice Department will somehow expose an anti-Trump "plot" from overseas — or at least, eclipse the Russia contacts and Trump cover-up attempts that Mueller proved.

Barr thus seems to be scratching Trump's longtime itch for a useful partisan probe or the semblance of one.

The president griped when Jeff Sessions, his first attorney general, didn't make a target of  Hillary Clinton. Bowing to department ethics rules, Sessions also offended Trump by recusing himself from the campaign probe given his own campaign-time Russian contacts.

Barr, who famously delivered positive spin on the contents of the Mueller report before it came out, appears much more securely ensconced in the Trump camp.

What that means for the Justice Department’s institutional independence remains to be seen.

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