My guess is that President Donald Trump did Attorney General William Barr a grave disservice by conflating two distinct inquiries in his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Barr is looking into the origins of the Russian collusion investigation, to see if U.S. law enforcement officials got ahead of the evidence and, if so, why. There are threads to that story that lead to Ukraine.
This is an official inquiry. It is legitimate and important. There is nothing untoward about the president of this country asking the president of Ukraine to cooperate with than inquiry.
As recently released text messages suggest, the second inquiry appears to be spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. The subject of this inquiry is the Bidens, and whether there was anything other than the self-evident personal enrichment involved in the appointment of Joe Biden’s son to the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time that Biden was the Obama administration’s point man for the country.
Rudy Giuliani’s inquiry is suspect
Asking the Ukrainian president to cooperate with his personal lawyer in an investigation of a political rival, as Trump did, is wholly inappropriate.
Now, I believe these were actually two separate tracks. Thus far, there is no evidence that Barr has been involved in the effort to investigate the activities of the Bidens in Ukraine. The Department of Justice issued a statement that Barr hadn’t been asked by Trump to contact anyone in Ukraine.
But in the conversation with Zelensky, Trump treated Barr and Giuliani interchangeably. In fact, in Trump’s part of the dialogue dealing with the Bidens, he specifically refers to working with the attorney general.
Excuse after excuse: Republicans should be ashamed of their silence on Trump’s call for China to go after Biden
Trump is not known as a master of detail or nuance. He routinely conflates the official with the personal. It would not be a surprise if he treated, and regarded, all inquiries involving Ukraine as related and interchangeable.
If I’m right, then Barr has been wrongly dragged into this controversy.
The key to understanding the full context of Trump’s use of the presidency to induce a foreign government to investigate a political rival lies with Giuliani and his interactions with Ukrainian officials. That’s where the congressional investigative focus should be.
What Trump did, even in his own account of it, is a troubling misuse of the office of the president.
Yet the import of this continues to be lost in the overreaction of the traditional media and Democrats to all other things Trump.
William Barr’s inquiry is legit
As mentioned, Barr is conducting an inquiry into the origins of the Russian collusion investigation. This is an official governmental endeavor and entirely legitimate.
Trump asked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to cooperate with Barr’s inquiry.
This was breathlessly reported as Trump asking another foreign leader to do something that would benefit him politically.
USA TODAY Editorial Board: Impeachment ‘a manufactured crisis’? Yes, Donald Trump faces a storm of his own making
Just because something will benefit Trump politically doesn’t mean that it isn’t legitimate government business or an appropriate exercise of his presidential prerogatives. All politicians hope that their official actions benefit them politically and endeavor mightily to make it so.
Australia’s cooperation with Barr’s inquiry is important. One of the early sources that led to the Russian collusion investigation was an Australian diplomat.
Barr has asked Trump to contact the heads of other governments to open doors for his inquiry. That’s an appropriate, and useful, protocol.
The important distinction we’re not making
Now, if Barr’s inquiry establishes that U.S. law enforcement, particularly the FBI, deployed investigative techniques unwarranted by the evidence in hand, that would bolster Trump’s political claim that the Russian collusion investigation was a witch hunt.
That the inquiry may end up helping Trump politically doesn’t render it unnecessary or illegitimate.
There is a world of difference between Trump asking foreign leaders to help Barr, a government officer, with an official inquiry into official action by the U.S. government, and Trump asking a foreign leader to work with his private attorney on an investigation into one of his political opponents.
The failure of the traditional media and Democrats to make such distinctions is one of the reasons the inappropriateness of the Ukrainian request hasn’t had the impact it should, at least as of yet.
This really is the fable of the boy crying wolf coming to life.
Robert Robb is a columnist at the Arizona Republic, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @RJRobb. You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to email@example.com. This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Trump Ukraine call: Rudy Giuliani, not William Barr, is the problem