Former Attorney General William "Bill" Barr, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Justice Department, reached a decisive and controversial conclusion that Trump's interactions with ex-FBI Director James Comey would not constitute obstruction of justice, according to a copy of a newly released June 2018 memo to senior Justice officials.
The fact that Barr weighed in on such a sensitive issue and would be poised to oversee special counsel Robert Mueller's work, if confirmed as attorney general, will undoubtedly now thrust his nomination into greater controversy. Barr discussed the memo with Trump and told him it would likely come up during his Senate confirmation, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN.
Barr has not shied away from defending Trump's firing of Comey, but the June 8 memo -- first reported by The Wall Street Journal and provided to lawmakers late Wednesday -- offers a detailed analysis of one of the most consequential episodes of Trump's presidency, concluding that while he's "in the dark about many facts," Mueller's obstruction inquiry was "fatally misconceived." Barr adds that Trump asking Comey to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and later firing Comey were within his powers as head of the executive branch.
"Mueller should not be able to demand that the President submit to an interrogation about alleged obstruction," Barr wrote. "If embraced by the Department, this theory would have potentially disastrous implications, not just for the Presidency, but for the Executive branch as a whole and the Department in particular."
The full repercussions of the President's behavior toward Comey are yet to be resolved, as the matter is still under investigation by Mueller.
Barr's memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel, who leads the Office of Legal Counsel, was unsolicited, according to a Justice Department official. The official said Barr had "no non-public information about the Special Counsel's investigation when preparing the memorandum (and still has none)," which he wrote as a "former official" when he was a law firm partner and private citizen. At the time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was still in office, but his job security was always less than rock-solid, as the President regularly lambasted him for stepping aside from the Russia investigation.
"I have admired Bill Barr for decades, and I believe that he will be an outstanding Attorney General," Rosenstein said in a statement Wednesday night. "Many people offer unsolicited advice, directly or through the news media, about legal issues they believe are pending before the Department of Justice. At no time did former Attorney General Barr seek or receive from me any non-public information regarding any ongoing investigation, including the Special Counsel investigation. His memo has had no impact on the investigation."
Barr's memo is sure to draw significant scrutiny now from Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill already troubled by his past comments on the special counsel's investigation.
Barr previously wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled, "Trump made the right call on Comey," criticizing the former FBI director for flouting longstanding Justice Department protocols when he announced in July 2016 that he wouldn't recommend charges against Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified info during her time as secretary of state, usurping the role of the attorney general at the time.
"I think it is quite understandable that the administration would not want an FBI director who did not recognize established limits on his powers," he wrote.
Later, Barr called the special counsel's obstruction of justice inquiry "asinine" in a June 2017 interview with the Hill.