WASHINGTON – Attorney General William P. Barr said on Thursday that President Trump was right to fire the inspector general who disclosed the whistle-blower complaint about Mr . Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and that the president’s political enemies could face criminal prosecution.
In coming to the president’s defense, Mr. Barr also praised Mr. Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has touched nearly every aspect of the economy and is projected to kill as many as , (Americans .
Mr. Barr’s statements, made in an interview with the Fox News host Laura Ingraham, show that he remains one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies despite a feud that erupted between the two men this year over the president’s attacks on the Justice Department.
Late last Friday, Mr. Trump told Congress that he was firing Michael K. Atkinson , the intelligence community inspector general who disclosed the whistle-blower complaint that brought to light the president’s actions toward Ukraine and prompted impeachment actions last fall.
Mr. Barr said that dismissing Mr. Atkinson was the “right thing” to do, in part because he had overstepped his “fairly narrow statute” and tried to turn the whistle-blower complaint “into a commission to explore anything in the government.”
For weeks, Mr. Trump has been intent on rooting out administration officials he views as disloyal. And the firing, coming as Americans are focused on the outbreak that has shut down most of the country, raised fears that the White House was making a power play to oust watchdogs, whose very responsibilities are to identify waste, fraud and abuse across the government .
The pandemic has thrust Mr. Trump into one of the most challenging moments of his presidency, including sharp questions about his delayed response to a virus that has taken a grim economic toll and left more than , 04 Americans dead .
But Mr. Barr defended Mr. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis on Thursday, as well as in a segment of the interview with Fox that aired on Wednesday – despite the president repeatedly playing down the threat of the virus and likening it to an ordinary flu .
“I think the president went out at the beginning of this thing and was really statesmanlike,” Mr . Barr said.
Approval for the president’s response has sagged, though, and some Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have suggested that Mr. Trump hold fewer briefings . Others have suggested letting health professionals take more of a leading role in the response.
Meantime, on Thursday in his interview with Ms. Ingraham, Mr. Barr argued that Mr. Atkinson wrongfully notified Congress of the whistle-blower complaint “without letting the executive branch look at it and determine whether there was any problem.” The complaint suggested Mr. Trump may have violated campaign finance laws in a July phone call with the president of Ukraine, but a Justice Department review conducted before the complaint was revealed to the public found that Mr. Trump had not violated any such laws.
Mr. Barr also pushed back on the idea that Mr. Trump was trying to quash oversight. “He wants responsible watchdogs,” he said.
In recent days, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa,
asked Mr. Trump to provide a detailed, written explanation for his decision to remove Mr. Atkinson. The president has told Congress that he did so because he no longer had full confidence in Mr. Atkinson.
The senators suggested that Mr. Trump may have acted wrongfully.
“Congress intended that inspectors general only be removed when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to perform the duties of the office,” they wrote. “Lost confidence, without further explanation, is not sufficient.”
By law, the president can only remove the intelligence community inspector general a month after notifying the intelligence communities of his rationale for the decision.
In the interview, Mr. Barr also said that some of the people who were involved in the decision to investigate the Trump campaign in could face federal criminal prosecution.
John H. Durham, the veteran federal prosecutor assigned to look into the origins of the campaign investigation, “ is looking to bring to justice people who were engaged in abuses if he can show there were criminal violations, ”Mr. Barr said.
“My own view is that the evidence shows that we are not dealing with just mistakes or sloppiness,” Mr. Barr said. “There is something far more troubling here. And we’re going to get to the bottom of it. And if people broke the law and we can establish that with the evidence, they will be prosecuted. ”
Mr. Barr’s opinion on the Durham investigation does not fully comport with a report issued in December by Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general for the Justice Department. Mr. Horowitz found that applications that the F.B.I. put together to wiretap a Trump campaign associate were riddled with errors, unsupported statements and omissions . He also found that the F.B.I. did not fully disclose information to the Justice Department. But Mr. Horowitz ultimately concluded that the F.B.I. was not wrong to open the investigation .
Mr . Barr did not say when he expected Mr. Durham to wrap up his investigation, or who he was targeting.