WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department denied a claim he had expressed concerns about President Donald Trump’s conduct with world leaders, details that were reported Monday in The New York Times.
The Times reported that former national security adviser John Bolton says in an unpublished book manuscript that he had a conversation with Barr in which Bolton expressed concerns Trump was granting “personal favors” to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Times report says Barr “was worried” Trump “created the appearance that he had undue influence” over investigationsinto companies based in those countries.
But a Justice Department spokesperson said Bolton’s characterization of Barr’s remarks was inaccurate.
“While the Department of Justice has not reviewed Mr. Bolton’s manuscript, the New York Times’ account of this conversation grossly mischaracterizes what Attorney General Barr and Mr. Bolton discussed,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement early Tuesday.
The Times cited a draft of an unpublished manuscript of Bolton’s book that had been given to the White House for review. The Times also said anonymous “people familiar with the manuscript” described what it said.
Bolton’s book, according to the Times, says Barr raised concerns about Trump’s conversations with Xibefore lifting the tough penalties imposed on the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The state-owned company had been banned from doing business with U.S. companies. But following a request from Xi, Trump reduced the penalty to a $1 billion fine in 2018.
Trump’s decision to reduce that penalty sparked criticism from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and led to a bipartisan effort in the Senate to block the move. At the time, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said by reducing the penalty, Trump was “helping make China great again.”
The Times report on Bolton’s book said Barr also referred to a conversation Trump had with Erdogan about an investigation into the Turkish state-owned Halkbank. U.S. officials were investigating the bank for money laundering and fraud in an alleged multibillion-dollar scheme to evade sanctions on Iran.
Erdogan personally lobbied Trump to intervene in the case, the Times and Bloomberg reported. According to Bloomberg, Trump told Erdogan in an April phone call that he would have Barr and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin look into it.
Erdogan’s lobbying proved unsuccessful, and in October federal prosecutors in New York issued a six-count indictment against Halkbank. That same month, the Trump administration imposed temporary sanctions on Turkey amid the uproar over Erdogan’s attacks on Kurds across the Syrian border, which followed Trump’s abrupt decision to pull U.S. troops out of the region.
“There was no discussion of ‘personal favors’ or ‘undue influence’ on investigations, nor did Attorney General Barr state that the President’s conversations with foreign leaders (were) improper,” Kupec said. “If this is truly what Mr. Bolton has written, then it seems he is attributing to Attorney General Barr his own current views – views with which Attorney General Barr does not agree.”
Who is John Bolton?:Former national security adviser now a focus in Trump’s impeachment trial
During his time in the Trump administration, Bolton – a fierce advocate for an aggressive U.S. foreign policy – often clashed with the president. Trump has sought to limit U.S. military intervention regarding Turkey, China, North Korea and Iran.
Since Bolton’s acrimonious exit from the administration in September, he has become a key figure in Trump’s impeachment on allegations he withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure that country into conducting investigations for personal political gain.
Bolton followed the White House directive for administration officials not to testify in the House impeachment inquiry. But in a statement explaining his decision not to voluntarily appear before the investigating committees, his lawyer Charles Cooper indicated Bolton had direct knowledge related to the allegations.
After the House impeached the president, Bolton changed his stance and said earlier this month that he was prepared to testify in the Senate trial if he were subpoenaed.
The Senate debate over whether to call Bolton and other witnesses to testify intensified this week after the Times reported Sunday that in his book manuscript, Bolton says that Trump told him in August the aid was tied to the investigations. That contradicts key elements of Trump’s defense.
Bolton’s reported discussions with Barr, as outlined by the Times account, raises new questions about the attorney general and his knowledge about Trump’s alleged pressure campaign in Ukraine.
In Sunday’s report, the Times said that after Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president, Bolton went to Barr to express concerns about Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the so-called shadow foreign policy the lawyer was pressing in Ukraine.
According to the Times, Bolton claims in his book he told Barr the president had mentioned Barr on the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Justice Department denied that Barr learned of the call from Bolton, maintaining that the attorney general had been informed of the call in mid-August.
A summary of the Trump-Zelensky call showed Trump told Zelensky that Barr would follow up with him.
When a summary of the Trump-Zelensky call was released in September, the Justice Department said in a statement, “The president has not asked the attorney general to contact Ukraine – on this or any other matter. The attorney general has not communicated with Ukraine – on this or any other subject. Nor has the attorney general discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani.”
On Monday, Trump sharply denied telling Bolton he was linking the aid to the investigations.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham implied during a Fox News interview that Bolton and his publisher told the Times about the book’s contents in an orchestrated effort to boost sales.
In a statement, Bolton and his publishers insisted there was “absolutely no coordination with The New York Times or anyone else regarding the appearance of information about his book.”
Cooper said his client gave the White House a copy of the manuscript for security review on Dec. 30, and said the Times report showed the “review process has been corrupted and that information has been disclosed by persons other than those properly involved in reviewing the manuscript.”
National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said Monday that only NSC staff and no other White House personnel had seen the manuscript.
“The Times does not discuss its sources, but I should point out that no one has questioned the accuracy of our report,” said Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times.
Contributing: John Fritze and Deirdre Shesgreen
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