WASHINGTON - William Barr, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, revealed on Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman asked him in June 2017 to join Trump’s legal defense team in face of the Mueller probe. According to Barr’s testimony before the Senate, Friedman approached him about this issue when he was already serving as American ambassador to Israel.
Barr told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “In June 2017, middle of June, Ambassador David Friedman, who is the U.S. ambassador to Israel, whom I didn’t know, reached out to me and we talked one evening. My understanding was he was interested in finding lawyers that could augment a defense team. He wanted to identify Washington lawyers with a broad experience.”
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Friedman was narrowly approved by the Senate to become ambassador in March 2017. He was the first U.S. ambassador to Israel in decades who was opposed by almost half of the Senate. His vote was almost entirely split across partisan lines, while previous ambassadors enjoyed strong bipartisan support. He entered the embassy in May 2017, a month before the conversation described by Barr.
Barr added that Friedman “asked me a number of questions, like what I’ve said about the president publicly, do I have any conflicts of interest, I told him I didn’t think I could take this offer.” He added that he “didn’t want to stick my head into this meat grinder.”
Friedman, according to Barr, then asked him to “briefly go over the next day and meet with the president,” a request that Barr accepted. “He brought me over,” Barr then said, referring to Friedman. “The ambassador sat through the meeting” between Barr and Trump, Barr added.
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The Jewish Democratic Council of America denounced Friedman’s conduct, stating: “We've said it before and will say it again - Ambassador Friedman clearly does not understand that diplomatic posts should not be used for political purposes.”
Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, told Haaretz that he doesn’t see anything illegal or unethical in Friedman’s conduct, but that “it’s very weird and unusual, and doesn’t look good.”
Painter, who is a member of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, explained that “if Friedman was doing this on his personal capacity, this isn’t illegal or unethical. But it does raise some questions. Did he use government phones or emails for this activity of trying to line up lawyers for the president? When he spoke to Barr, was he speaking to him as a personal friend of President Trump, or as his ambassador to Israel?”
According to Painter, if Friedman attended the meeting between Trump and Barr in a private capacity, as a friend of Trump’s, then “they can’t claim that this meeting is protected from scrutiny by client-attorney privilege. Trump and Barr had a friend with them in the room, someone who is not Trump’s lawyer at that point in time, because he’s got a full time job as the government’s ambassador to a foreign country.”
Painter said that “if I was still in the White House and in charge of ethics, I would have called the ambassador and asked him not to do this. I would have told him - this could be perfectly legal and ethical, but it stinks. It doesn’t look good. Ambassadors should spend their time representing our country abroad where they are stationed, not lining up lawyers for a president who is under investigation.”