Without specifically mentioning Ukraine or even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s most recent Justice Department order seems to have created additional challenges for his planned testimony before the Senate.
The order states that no one can “expect to be on any call concerning Russia, Ukraine, or other foreign affairs on which the Attorney General is involved for the purpose of trying to influence those calls.”
President Donald Trump appointed Barr to the Justice Department last week and said he would be putting his Russia investigation in the hands of a “special counsel” who “is going to be very fair.” As a former Justice Department official, he also has direct knowledge of special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, which is running an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Whether that investigation will continue is unclear. But the Justice Department, which could ultimately decide to drop Mueller’s investigation, is not intended to be a “congressional body,” under Article II of the Constitution. Barr is not an elected official, and has expressed interest in reviewing Mueller’s investigation. He said that he wanted to “thoroughly vet” its findings.
Senate aides on both sides of the aisle who spoke to Reuters on background Tuesday said they don’t know what Trump expects from Barr, and how he plans to handle requests for comment about the special counsel investigation.
It’s not clear whether Barr’s comments on the Trump-Russia investigation will be part of his testimony when he testifies on Oct. 2. He’s sworn before Congress in the past that he has never discussed the investigation and would recuse himself if he was to be asked.
Though Barr has been friendly with Trump in the past, the president is keen to have his “friendly” secretary of state in place. Pompeo, a veteran politician who has ties to the pro-Israeli, pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, has a greater diplomatic role in the administration than the current chief diplomat, Rex Tillerson. However, questions remain about Pompeo’s position on a U.S. military strike against Syria.
Barr reportedly praised the joint strike between the U.S. and its allies that used precision weaponry to strike a Syrian airfield earlier this month. Pompeo said at the time that the strike was the right response to the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that a meeting between Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was put off for the third time in a month due to differences over Russia’s conduct in Syria. Pompeo plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week, per the Times, and there is still a question about who will represent the United States at that meeting.
Pompeo and the State Department declined to comment on the Times story.