Barr differs with Trump line on controversial presidential request

The Washington Post published a provocative scoop last week, reporting that Donald Trump wanted Attorney General Bill Barr to hold a news conference, telling the public that the president’s Ukrainian extortion scheme did not break any laws. Barr, the article said, “declined to do so.” (The New York Times soon after ran its own version of the same story.)

The Post’s report went on to note that Trump didn’t just move on after Barr demurred: the president mentioned it to others, saying he wished the attorney general would publicly exonerate him.

A few days later, Trump told reporters, “Listen. I never asked him for a press conference. It’s fake news by the Washington Post, which is a fake newspaper. It’s fake. It’s made up. And if I ask Bill Barr to have a press conference, I think he’d do it. But I never asked him to have a press conference.”

One reporter reminded, the president, “Bill Barr and the DOJ are not denying that you asked him to have a press conference.” Trump replied, “Well, they’re not saying anything.”

Yesterday, that changed. The Washington Post reported:

Attorney General William P. Barr said Wednesday that he did not remember President Trump ever asking him to hold a news conference declaring the commander in chief broke no laws in a controversial phone call with the leader of Ukraine, but he acknowledged discussions with the White House on how his department would communicate to the media about the matter.

At an event in Memphis about a Justice Department crackdown on gun violence, a reporter inquired, “Mr. Attorney General, did the president ask you to publicly defend him regarding the Ukrainian call, and if so, why did you not want to do that?”

“If you’re talking about press reports that he asked me to have a news conference, the fact is, I don’t remember any such request,” Barr said.

The gap between Trump’s rhetoric and Barr’s is notable and potentially important.

Note, for example, that soon after the original report ran, the president wrote on Twitter that he and the attorney general “both deny this story.” Except, that’s not quite right: “I don’t remember any such request” isn’t the same thing as, “There was no such request.”

For that matter, while it’s impossible to prove definitely what Barr does or does not recall, it seems hard to believe the attorney general would forget such a presidential request.

It’s far easier to believe yesterday’s answer was intended as a dodge: Barr may not have wanted to directly contradict Trump, but he also may not have wanted to deny the existence of a conversation he’ll likely be asked about under oath during his next trip to Capitol Hill.