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Is Barr's Justice Department allowing probes that threaten Trump?

President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr

President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr on July 11. Credit: EPA/Michael Reynolds

The unusual suspects

In William Barr, Donald Trump seemed to have gotten the protector he wanted in an attorney general.

Barr argues sweeping claims of executive privilege against congressional subpoenas for White House witnesses and the president's tax returns. He put a Trump-favoring prerelease spin on the Mueller report. He obliges Trump's demand to investigate the Russia investigators.

But the lengths to which Barr will go to defend and appease Trump may face an even tougher test. According to Politico, legal experts see signs that the Justice Department is laying the groundwork for a potential criminal probe into whether the president and his top advisers broke federal laws in the Ukraine scandal.

The FBI already has contacted an attorney for the whistleblower who first revealed the effort to leverage military aid and a White House audience in exchange for investigations Trump wanted of political rivals. In New York, federal prosecutors are expanding a probe into Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and have indicted two of Giuliani's associates who were deeply involved in Ukraine schemes.

When the whistleblower complaint surfaced in September, a Justice spokeswoman said Trump had been cleared of any campaign finance violations from his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But a senior DOJ official said that didn't mean Justice wouldn't examine other issues. Legal experts and several Democratic lawmakers say those other issues could include a conspiracy to commit bribery and extortion by conditioning an official government act.

According to The Washington Post, when Trump wanted Barr to hold a news conference declaring that the commander in chief had broken no laws, the attorney general wouldn't do it. However, Barr has embraced the long-standing Justice opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted while in office.

Despite the moves on several fronts by Justice prosecutors and FBI agents, Democrats say they have little confidence the department under Barr will follow the law no matter where it leads. "It’s Bill Barr protecting the president,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “The way to handle it would have been to appoint a special counsel to investigate all these matters.”

GOP: All's unfair

With impeachment proceedings moving to a new phase, Republicans signaled on the Sunday talk-show circuit that their strategy will remain the same — attacking the process as unfair, even as they and Trump have been invited to mount a defense.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee member, said he thought it “would be to the president’s advantage” to have counsel participate in the panel's hearings, which open Wednesday. “But I can also understand how he is upset at the illegitimate process that we saw unfold in the Intelligence Committee,” he added.

The White House said Sunday night it won’t participate, Politico reported. During last month's hearings, a top Republican complaint was that Trump wasn’t allowed to be represented by counsel.

Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on Judiciary, said the Democratic Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, should be called to testify. "If he chooses not to, then I really question his veracity in what he’s putting in his report,” Collins said.

Janison: Serving up fantasy

Trump won't let go of the groundless and convoluted story, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. He insists a Democratic National Committee computer server from 2016 that contains undefined secrets getting hidden away in Ukraine by a "Ukrainian company" called CrowdStrike.

As he rambled on about it during a live call-in to "Fox & Friends" last week, even host Steve Doocy sounded a note of skepticism. "Are you sure they did that? Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?” he asked. “Well, that’s what the word is,” the president replied. 

There is no missing server. CrowdStrike, a California company that has worked for both parties, gleaned images from the hard drives and gave the information from the cloud-based backup to the FBI for the investigation of Russian hacking of the DNC. Former Trump homeland security adviser Tom Bossert has blamed Giuliani for stoking Trump's belief in the "completely debunked" story.

But current administration officials have tiptoed around his claims and indulged his demands for investigation.

Sex, lies and impeachment

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the only House Democrat to have worked on both the Nixon and Clinton impeachment proceedings, said Trump's alleged misconduct is worse than either of those predecessors'.

"Lying about sex does not disrupt the constitutional order. It does not threaten the national security," she said on CNN of the failed Republican-led impeachment against Bill Clinton. "We're not pursuing President Trump's lying about sex. His former lawyer [Michael Cohen] is in prison because he lied about the president's affairs."

In Richard Nixon's case, while he tried to "use the leverage" of the government to cover up the Watergate burglary, he did not involve other foreign nations, Lofgren said.

“If you take a look at what the Founding Fathers were concerned about, it was the interference by foreign governments in our political system that was one of their gravest concerns," she said. "Nixon's behavior didn't fall into that range. So, in that way, this conduct is more serious.”

Majority rues

Both Mitch McConnell's Senate Republicans and Nancy Pelosi's House Democrats face challenges in defending their majorities in the 2020 elections, according to analyses by Roll Call.

While Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama is rated the most vulnerable senator up for reelection, seven of the 10 senators on Roll Call's list are Republican. Jones won a special election in the deep-red state in 2017 after his hard-right GOP opponent Roy Moore imploded over allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls.

On the House side, eight of the 10 most vulnerable members are Democrats, including freshman Max Rose of Staten Island.

Donny, I hardly know ye

Trump is openly a fan of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has sent word to his admirer as U.K. elections approach: Don't help me.

Current plans call for them to avoid a one-on-one meeting at this week's NATO summit in London. Polls favor Johnson, and he doesn't want Trump's unpopularity in Britain to blow it for him.

What else is happening:

  • Trump's intervention on behalf of a Navy SEAL tried for war crimes has left him more removed than ever from a disenchanted military command, The New York Times reports. A Pentagon hierarchy wedded to long-standing rules of combat and discipline faced a commander in chief with no military experience but a sense of grievance against authority.
  • Lisa Page, the  former FBI lawyer whose texting with agent Peter Strzok reflected widespread fear Trump could become president, is breaking silence about Trump's years of public verbal abuse.
  • Joe Biden told an Iowa crowd that his mother would’ve said that Trump’s mouth should be washed out with soap. But not everyone has forgotten Biden's own suds-worthy moments at a hot mic.
  • Andrew Yang raised $750,000 on Saturday, his single best fundraising day to date of the Democratic hopeful's campaign, Politico reported.
  • Cory Booker, struggling to qualify for the next debate, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that his campaign messaging is "working." He then conceded that "it's not translating to people choosing me in the polls." 
  • If you didn't know former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak was running for the Democratic nomination, no worries. He dropped out Sunday.
  • Trump has spoken favorably of a bipartisan Senate bill to lower prescription drug prices. But a GOP sponsor, Sen. Chuck Grassley, said the president hasn't leaned hard enough on McConnell to let it advance, according to Politico.
  • Trump said he's restoring steel tariffs on Argentina and Brazil.
  • Zelensky is carrying out a corruption crackdown, including the firing of at least one prosecutor useful to Giuliani.

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