House Democrats Seek Probe of Barr Remarks on Watchdog Firing

A pair of Democratic congressmen say the attorney general has repeatedly misled the American public.

The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building in Washington. (Photo by JACK RODGERS/Courthouse News Service)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Attorney General William Barr’s comments about the recently fired intelligence community inspector general prompted two House Democrats on Monday to call for a Justice Department internal review.

Congressmen Adam Schiff of California and Jerry Nadler of New York, once impeachment managers tasked with conducting the House inquiry that led to President Donald Trump’s charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, are leading the latest push for an investigation. This time, it is Barr’s conduct that has drawn their attention.

In a letter issued to Jeffrey Ragsdale, acting director of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, and Michael Horowitz, the department’s inspector general, Schiff and Nadler claim Barr “blatantly mischaracterized” the conduct of Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who oversaw the whistleblower complaint that eventually led to Trump’s impeachment.

The president fired Atkinson on April 3, citing a lack of confidence in him.

Days later, Barr told Fox News that Trump did “the right thing” and said Atkinson “interpreted his statute… that gave him jurisdiction over wrongdoing by intelligence people, and tried to turn it into a commission to explore anything in the government and immediately report to Congress without letting the executive branch look at it and determine whether there was any problem.”

“He was told this in a letter from the Department of Justice and he is obliged to the follow the interpretation of the Department of Justice, and he ignored it. So I think the president was correct in firing him,” Barr said on the April 9 broadcast.

Schiff and Nadler dispute Barr’s description of the situation.  The respective chairmen of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees also pointed to Trump’s remarks during a White House coronavirus taskforce briefing the day after Atkinson’s firing.

Visibly bristling at a question from reporters about Atkinson, Trump said on April 4: “I thought he did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible. He took a whistleblower report, which turned out to be a fake report, it was a fake. It was totally wrong.”

The president added, “He took a fake report and he brought it to Congress, with an emergency. Okay? Not a big Trump fan – that I can tell you.”

This falsehood distorts the whistleblower complaint Congress actually received plus the findings from the investigation that led to Trump’s impeachment, according to Monday’s letter.  

“Mr. Barr’s misleading remarks appear to have been aimed at justifying the President’s retaliatory decision to fire Mr. Atkinson,” Schiff and Nadler wrote.

This issue has also been raised by Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Mark Warner of Virginia. Last week, the Democratic lawmakers also wrote to Horowitz and Ragsdale, expressing alarm that Barr seems to be acting beyond the bounds of his professional responsibilities.

Barr’s allegations of misconduct by Atkinson don’t line up with testimony from Joseph Maguire, former acting director of national intelligence, last September. Under oath, Maguire said Atkinson’s handling of the whistleblower complaint was “by the book.”

“Mr. Atkinson never transmitted the whistleblower complaint to the House or Senate Intelligence Committees, nor did he reveal its contents to Congress. Instead, Mr. Atkinson properly alerted the congressional intelligence committees to the existence of the whistleblower complaint after he was unable to resolve a difference with acting DNI Maguire about whether the complaint should be transmitted to Congress,” Schiff and Nadler wrote Monday, citing the statute Atkinson followed in his reporting.

The Democratic congressmen also say that Barr is misrepresenting the Justice Department’s legal opinion about the whistleblower complaint by joining Trump to smear Atkinson.

Back in September, under Barr’s leadership, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a slip opinion concluding Maguire was not required by law to forward the whistleblower complaint to Congress.

Trump claimed the complaint contained information subject to executive privilege and that Maguire was not permitted to release it. But executive privilege “cannot be invoked to shield misconduct,” Nadler and Schiff argued, and Trump never actually invoked executive privilege over the document.

According to Monday’s letter, Atkinson did not ignore any legal guidance and even privately told the Office of Legal Counsel he was aware of the boundaries of his own authority.

In the year since former special counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Nadler and Schiff say Barr has “persistently sought to mislead the American public” and they pointed to recent comments from a federal judge.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a George W. Bush appointee, excoriated Barr for a “lack of candor” about the Mueller probe.

“The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller report that conflict with those statements, cause the court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller report to the contrary,” Walton wrote.

A representative from the Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment.

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