Bill Barr tried to undermine an SDNY case that directly implicated Trump: report
Attorney General Bill Barr directed Justice Department officials to draft legal memos undermining the campaign finance hush money case that brought down Michael Cohen and implicated President Donald Trump, according to a report Thursday in the New York Times.
Barr had the Office of Legal Counsel draft the memo, the report said. And the prosecutors reportedly "resisted" the effort. Since the case is finished — and Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 — there isn't a whole lot Barr could do to affect the case. It may raise questions about whether Trump could be criminally prosecuted for his related conduct once he's out of office.
The report reveals new depths Barr has undertaken in his crusade to provide Trump the full protection and exoneration he desires from his attorney general. Barr's efforts on this front, which include his lies and spin about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, his interference in the sentencing of Roger Stone, his push to drop charges against Michael Flynn, and the investigation of the Russia probe led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, have already been extensive and widely criticized.
The report also puts recent developments in a new light. Barr recently bumbled his way into a power struggle with former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who had led federal prosecutors the Southern District of New York. Berman's office brought the case against Cohen, which included his admission in open court that Trump had personally directed him to carry out his campaign finance crimes. Last Friday, Barr abruptly announced that Berman would be "stepping down" — a claim that was swiftly refuted by Berman, who said he had no intention of resigning. The following day, Barr announced that Trump had fired Berman. But instead of having Berman replaced by an outsider, as the attorney general initially planned, Barr said Berman's own deputy would take over running the office.
The duplicitousness and sloppiness of the spectacle added to the suspicions that Berman was being removed for nefarious purposes. And when it comes to SDNY, there numerous potentially corrupt reasons Barr and Trump would want to intervene.
It's worth noting, though, that Berman was reportedly recused from the Cohen case. Cohen, who served as the president's personal lawyer and fixer, was charged with violating campaign finance laws by arranging hush money payments ahead of the 2016 election to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to keep them quiet about affairs they say they had with Trump.
"Mr. Barr’s unexpected involvement in such a politically sensitive case suggested that he planned to exert influence over prosecutors in the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, long known for operating independently of Washington," the Times report said. "Mr. Barr and other officials have told aides and other United States attorneys that the Southern District needs to be reined in."
The piece added:
Mr. Barr’s maneuvering in the Cohen case was not his only attempt to insert himself in Southern District cases. After Mr. Barr was sworn in, one of his first actions was to seek briefings on politically sensitive investigations in the office and elsewhere, people briefed on the discussions said.
One matter that Mr. Berman’s office described to Mr. Barr early on was the growing investigation into Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet-born businessmen who were helping Mr. Giuliani unearth potentially damaging information in Ukraine about Mr. Trump’s political rivals.
UPDATE: This story had been corrected to reflect that Barr reportedly asked the Office of Legal Counsel to draft the memo.