News Roundup: William Barr, the President’s Personal Lawyer

Each week brings a new example of how Attorney General William Barr has acted not as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer representing the American people, but as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer serving Trump’s political interests.

The most recent instance was the late-Friday ousting of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Over the course of the next 24 hours, Berman refused to leave and be replaced by an ally of the president; Barr was forced to ask Trump to fire Berman himself; and Berman eventually resigned, with his deputy taking on the role of acting U.S. attorney.

While the firing may not have gone exactly as smoothly as Barr might have wanted, the possible reasons for the firing are troubling, as Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes outline in the Atlantic. Barr’s actions here, along with his previous interventions into Justice Department cases (like those of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn), “add up to a broader campaign of intimidation,” write Jurecic and Wittes, “part of an incessant effort to politicize law enforcement — even as both Trump and Barr insist that their opponents are the ones doing the politicizing.”

Barr has maintained that Berman, not being a presidential appointee, was “living on borrowed time,” but questions remain about whether the firing was merely to clear the way for a Trump ally or if it was, in fact, retaliatory. And the SDNY has certainly been on the opposite side of the president on a number of politically sensitive cases. 

On Thursday, the New York Times published a story about Barr’s efforts to undermine the SDNY, specifically with regard to the prosecution of Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen on charges of campaign finance violations. While Cohen had been convicted before Barr took office in February 2019, the Times reported that Barr instructed Justice Department officials to draft a memo with legal arguments that could raise questions about Cohen’s prosecution and undercut similar future cases.

Also getting attention this week, thanks to the release of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s long-awaited book, is the prosecution of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which had also been investigated by the federal prosecutors in Manhattan. The president’s attempts to shield the bank from charges related to its evasion of Iran sanctions has been previously reported, but according to Bolton, Trump had assured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in late 2018 that he would “take care of things,” and told him that the SDNY prosecutors “were not his people … a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.” The bank was eventually charged with money laundering and fraud, but not before Barr himself had attempted to negotiate a favorable settlement.

John Bolton’s Book

American Oversight has been investigating the administration’s efforts on behalf of Halkbank, as well as a number of Trump’s other corrupt foreign policy actions that are outlined in Bolton’s book. We’ve filed requests for documents related to how external entities might have influenced policy toward Venezuela, and for records of the administration’s move to save the Chinese company ZTE from going out of business. You can read more about those investigations, and Bolton’s book, here.

While Bolton’s book, as expected, corroborates much of what we already know about the president’s contacts with Ukraine, we’re also looking into his efforts to coerce other foreign governments to interfere in U.S. elections, including China. According to Bolton, Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy more U.S. agricultural products to help him with his reelection chances, and news reports from October — and the president’s own statements to reporters — indicated that he had asked China to investigate Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.

One of Trump’s top China advisers, Michael Pillsbury, even claimed to have received information on Hunter Biden from the Chinese while on a trip to Beijing in the fall. This week, we published emails we obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests that show frequent communications between Pillsbury and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in 2019 — including potentially before and after Pillsbury’s fall trip.

Also This Week

In our investigation of the attempted purge of 200,000-plus voters from the Wisconsin voter rolls, we obtained and published communications between the state legislature and members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. While the commission is supposed to be bipartisan in its operations, the documents show two Republican-appointed commissioners sending recommendations to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, as well as state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

One such communication, which came from Commissioner Dean Knudson to Vos, includes proposed legislation that would give the commission greater authority to purge voters from the rolls, and mandate that the commission send out “mover mailers” every year. (The massive voter purge that has been the subject of a court battle came about after a conservative law firm in Wisconsin sued to have 230,000 voters removed for not responding to such mailers.) Read more here.