Schiff and Nadler seek probe of Barr for comments on Trump move to fire intel watchdog

The Democrats say the AG’s comments may have violated DOJ’s code of professional conduct.

Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff

Two top House Democrats are asking internal Justice Department watchdogs to investigate Attorney General William Barr for recent comments they say misrepresented the facts about President Donald Trump's decision to fire Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York say Barr's comments, in an April 9 interview with Fox News' Laura Ingraham, may have violated DOJ's code of professional conduct, which requires officials to operate with "candor."

The lawmakers asked Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz to investigate whether Barr violated professional responsibilities in his comments about Atkinson and whether he improperly interfered in Atkinson's efforts to alert Congress to alleged misconduct by Trump last fall.

"The role of Attorney General Barr and other senior DOJ officials, in coordination with the White House, in attempting to prevent the whistleblower complaint from reaching Congress — as required by law — warrants your attention," they wrote, referring to the complaint that sparked Trump’s impeachment trial.

Trump abruptly fired Atkinson earlier this month, citing Atkinson's decision last fall to inform Congress about the existence of a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his Democratic adversaries. Atkinson deemed the complaint "urgent" and credible, triggering a legal requirement to inform Congress. The White House and Justice Department intervened, overruling Atkinson's determination and blocking him from sharing it with Congress.

Ultimately, Atkinson did not share the complaint with Congress, but the public pressure surrounding the incident prompted the administration to share the details with lawmakers in September.

Yet Barr, in his Fox interview, suggested Atkinson deserved to be fired because he violated Justice Department protocols, a characterization that Nadler and Schiff say falsely impugns the former inspector general’s actions.

Justice Department officials acknowledged receiving the letter from the Democratic chairmen.

A senior DOJ aide said despite the allegations, Barr's assessment of Atkinson's conduct was correct. Atkinson, the official said, should have deferred to the Justice Department's legal opinion that Congress was not entitled to the substance of the complaint and was incorrect to inform lawmakers of its existence and that he disagreed with DOJ's opinion to bar lawmakers from receiving it.

Schiff and Nadler noted that Atkinson's decision to inform Congress of the existence of the complaint was subsequently blessed by acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who told lawmakers the same month that Atkinson handled the matter "by the book."

It's unclear whether Horowitz will consider the lawmakers' request — he received an identical one from Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Mark Warner of Virginia last week as well. But the veteran watchdog has tangled with Trump repeatedly in recent years. Most notably, Horowitz defended Atkinson's actions surrounding the whistleblower report after Trump's decision to remove him.

"Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight," Horowitz said at the time. "That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done 'by the book' and consistent with the law."

Horowitz also issued reports sharply critical of the FBI's handling of both the Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation, simultaneously providing fodder for Trump and his allies while debunking a string of conspiracy theories about the handling of both probes.

In their letter, Nadler and Schiff also copied Jeffrey Ragsdale, head of DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles internal disciplinary matters.


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