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OP-ED: Is the Justice Department scooping up dirt about Joe Biden from Rudolph Giuliani?

Michael McGough
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
FILE - In this May 5, 2018, file photo, Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Donald Trump, speaks in Washington. Giuliani says Stormy Daniels isn’t credible because of her work as a porn actress and implied that her claims that she had sex with the president aren’t true because of the way she looks.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Is the Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr facilitating Rudolph W. Giuliani’s attempt to blacken the name of former Vice President Joe Biden?

That’s an understandable concern after Barr acknowledged this week that the department indeed was willing to evaluate information Giuliani had gathered from Ukrainian sources about Biden and his son, Hunter.

In the July 25, 2019, telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — the conversation that led to Trump’s impeachment — Trump pushed a conspiracy theory that as vice president Biden had pressed the Ukrainian government to dismiss a top prosecutor because the prosecutor was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company on whose board Hunter Biden served.

That theory’s main proponent appears to be Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor who was fired for not zealously pursuing corrupt Ukrainians. And it is undermined not just by denials from other Ukrainian officials, but also by the fact that Biden’s pressure on the prosecutor was part of an international anti-corruption effort. But it figured in the defense of Trump during his impeachment trial and remains an obsession for congressional Republicans.

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In an interview with “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of Trump’s most ardent advocates, said that he and his committee would “make sure that Hunter Biden’s conflict of interest is explored because it’s legitimate. How could Joe Biden really fight corruption when his son’s sitting on the Burisma board?”

In the same interview, Graham said that he had spoken to Barr and that “he told me that they’ve created a process that Rudy could give information and they would see if it’s verified.”

On Monday, Barr essentially confirmed that startling statement, saying that the Justice Department “has the obligation to have an open door to anybody who wishes to provide us information that they think is relevant.”

But Barr added that he had told Graham that “we have to be very careful with respect to any information coming from the Ukraine. There are a lot of agendas in the Ukraine, a lot of crosscurrents. And we can’t take anything we received from Ukraine at face value.”

Graham had also counseled caution in his “Face the Nation” interview, even suggesting that the information Giuliani was passing on might contain Russian disinformation. Graham mentioned the Steele dossier, the collection of detrimental information about Trump that figured in the FBI investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

Given what witnesses in the House impeachment hearings said about Giuliani’s role in the Trump administration’s machinations around Ukraine — including the dismissal of the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv — both Congress and the Justice Department should be skeptical of any dirt he dishes up.

Barr has a personal reason for staying out of anything having to do with Ukraine or Giuliani. In his phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump suggested that Barr was on the same team as Giuliani, his private lawyer. After complaining that “you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair,” Trump said that he would have Giuliani call Zelenskiy “along with the attorney general.”

Trump also said: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.”

The Justice Department later issued a statement saying: “The president has not spoken with the attorney general about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The president has not asked the attorney general to contact Ukraine — on this or any other matter.”

Despite that denial, Barr’s involvement in any decisions involving Ukraine, Giuliani or the Bidens creates a credibility problem — especially in light of the attorney general’s cheerleading for Trump and the president’s well-known willingness to suggest that the Justice Department should investigate his political opponents.

A reporter for ABC asked Barr if he had thought about recusing himself from matters related to Giuliani and Ukraine. Barr didn’t respond, but it was a pertinent question. ‘Barr should think about it, and then announce that he will play no role in the Justice Department’s evaluation of Giuliani’s “information.”

— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.