WASHINGTON — For a while at least, he seemed to have found his Roy Cohn, a lawyer to defend him against his accusers and go after his enemies. But the relationship between President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr may be growing more complicated with the rising threat of impeachment.
Rather than publicly join the fight against House Democrats pursuing the president, Mr. Barr has remained out of the fray, resisting requests by intermediaries from Mr. Trump to go before the cameras to say no crime had been committed. While Mr. Barr exonerated the president in the spring at the end of the Russia investigation, he has been more reticent in the current matter.
The reluctance hints at a new distance between the two men, according to people who have spoken with them. Mr. Trump, angry with his coverage, is aggravated with Mr. Barr for urging him to release a reconstructed transcript of the telephone call with Ukraine’s president at the center of the impeachment drive. For his part, Mr. Barr was bothered that Mr. Trump on that call lumped him together with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, like interchangeable parts of his personal defense team.
The two remain on much better terms than Mr. Trump was with his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whom he repeatedly berated in public for not protecting him from the Russia investigation and eventually fired. The president has given Mr. Barr extensive leeway and largely deferred to his judgment. Mr. Barr has spoken with pride about how much Mr. Trump relies on him and treats him as a confidant.
But the impeachment debate seems to be testing those ties as House Democrats investigate whether Mr. Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors by using his office to pressure Ukraine to provide incriminating information about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats. The Justice Department concluded there was no campaign finance violation, but Mr. Barr has not gone beyond that.
“The easiest read of this is, yes, there’s a limit,” said Harry Litman, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general under President Bill Clinton. “Yes, he will push the envelope, but if it’s not plausible to say there’s no crime, he won’t do it.”
Mr. Trump on Thursday angrily denied a report in The Washington Post, which was confirmed by The New York Times, that he wanted Mr. Barr to hold a news conference to say that the president had broken no laws, only to be rebuffed by the attorney general.
In a Twitter post, Mr. Trump called The Post’s article “pure fiction,” adding: “We both deny this story, which they knew before they wrote it. A garbage newspaper!” Mr. Barr, however, did not publicly deny the account.
Late Thursday, Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said, “It was President Trump who decided to release the entire, unredacted phone call showing everyone he’s done nothing wrong, and while shady sources attempt to push a false narrative of division, the president has a great relationship with the attorney general and respects his decades of service to this country.”
The attorney general’s public absence in recent weeks contrasted with his willingness to act as Mr. Trump’s defender after the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, wrapped up his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and ties between Moscow and Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Barr released a four-page letter summing up Mr. Mueller’s findings that critics considered tilted to the most sympathetic interpretation for the president. Then, after releasing the special counsel report, the attorney general took it upon himself to declare that its findings did not add up to obstruction of justice, even though Mr. Mueller was not willing to conclude that. At a news conference and before Congress, Mr. Barr insisted Mr. Trump had done nothing wrong.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and friend of Mr. Barr’s, said the Ukraine matter is fundamentally different because it is still under investigation by the House. Mr. Barr offered his judgments about the Russia case only after Mr. Mueller wrapped up his inquiry.
It would be “highly inappropriate for Attorney General Barr to exonerate the president on a controversy that was still unfolding,” Mr. Turley said.
If anything, Mr. Turley added, Mr. Barr should be credited for ensuring that as much information be released as possible, in both the Russia and Ukraine cases.
“What’s ironic is that Barr has one of the most robust views of executive privilege,” Mr. Turley said, “yet it’s breathtaking to see the level at which he has secured the release of information about the president and the speed with which he has done it.”
Mr. Barr had to negotiate hard with Mr. Trump to release the vast majority of Mr. Mueller’s report with only some redactions. His news conference defending the president essentially grew out of that discussion, with Mr. Barr agreeing to offer his own conclusions publicly as long as the report was turned over to Congress. A White House official denied late Thursday that there had been such a debate.
Similarly, Mr. Barr recommended that Mr. Trump release the reconstructed transcript of the July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, arguing that it would show that Mr. Trump did nothing wrong. Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, agreed with that recommendation, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued against releasing the call record, saying that it would hurt American diplomacy if foreign leaders thought their conversations with the president might be made public. Mr. Pompeo was also on the call — which he initially obscured — giving him added reason to not want it publicly aired.
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, was not included in the discussion and instead was among a number of aides blindsided when he learned that the president had decided to release the reconstructed transcript. In New York with Mr. Trump for meetings at the United Nations, Mr. Mulvaney declared to other aides that he would not be the one defending the call, according to people involved in the matter.
In the run-up to the release of the Ukraine call notes, the White House and the Justice Department exchanged plans for how they would share the information. Mr. Barr said that he could not recall whether Mr. Trump asked him to hold a news conference, according to an administration official. When the Justice Department said it would release a statement rather than hold a news conference saying that it found no campaign finance violation, the White House did not push back, according to an administration official.
To the extent that Mr. Trump was convinced that releasing the reconstructed transcript would clear him of wrongdoing, it was a major miscalculation. The record showed that after Mr. Zelensky talked about his country’s need for more security aid from the United States in the face of Russian aggression, Mr. Trump immediately pivoted and asked him to “do us a favor, though,” and investigate a conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s involvement with Democrats in 2016 as well as Mr. Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Democrats have seized on that to say it made clear the president was pressing a foreign power for help against his domestic political rivals. In the days that followed, reports emerged about Mr. Barr’s own contacts with foreign leaders for help investigating the origins of the Russia interference investigation. While the Ukraine pressure campaign is separate from the Justice Department’s newest investigation into the 2016 election, critics have said it is more evidence that the Trump administration is trying to carry out work that personally benefits Mr. Trump.
Since the release of the reconstructed transcript, Mr. Trump has grown irked when he sees news coverage asserting that the call was problematic, harkening back to the fact that Mr. Barr was among those who told him it would be wise to release it, according to two people close to the president. One of them said that Mr. Mulvaney has fueled the president’s concerns about Mr. Barr, telling Mr. Trump that it was a mistake to make the document public.
In the call, which took place the day after Mr. Mueller testified before Congress, effectively ending his inquiry, Mr. Trump suggested that Mr. Barr was part of his effort to get damaging information about Democrats. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky.
Mr. Barr sought to distance himself from the pressure campaign, however. After the release of the reconstructed transcript, his department said that Mr. Barr had no knowledge of the call until a whistle-blower filed a complaint and that Mr. Trump had not spoken with the attorney general “about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son.”
Even so, Mr. Barr’s department had advised the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to keep the whistle-blower complaint from Congress and in a written statement ruled out any campaign finance violation by the president.
While the attorney general has otherwise remained silent about Mr. Trump, he has distanced himself from Mr. Giuliani. After reports that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating Mr. Giuliani, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division said he would not have met with him in Washington had he known.
But for every cabinet officer in Mr. Trump’s turnover-heavy administration, a countdown clock begins ticking from the moment they are appointed and the question is when it will eventually go off. For Mr. Barr, it is still ticking, at least for now.
Peter Baker and Katie Benner reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.