But Mr. Barr spent weeks in the spring of 2019 questioning the prosecutors over their decision to charge Mr. Cohen with violating campaign finance laws, according to people briefed on the matter.
At one point during the discussions, Mr. Barr instructed Justice Department officials in Washington to draft a memo outlining legal arguments that could have raised questions about Mr. Cohen’s conviction and undercut similar prosecutions in the future, according to the people briefed on the matter.
The prosecutors in New York resisted the effort, the people said, and a Justice Department official said Mr. Barr did not instruct them to withdraw the case. The department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, noted that Mr. Cohen was convicted and sentenced in December 2018, before Mr. Barr was sworn in, so there was little he could do to change the outcome of the case….
The New York Times reported previously that Mr. Barr had questioned the legal theory of the campaign finance charges against Mr. Cohen, but it was not known that the attorney general went so far as to ask for the draft memo or had raised his concerns more than once.
The memo, written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, addressed the Southern District’s somewhat novel use of campaign finance laws to charge Mr. Cohen. Before Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea, the only person known to face criminal charges for payments meant to keep negative information buried during a political campaign was the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who was not convicted.
Mr. Barr argued, among other things, that such cases might be better suited to civil resolutions by the Federal Election Commission than to criminal prosecutions, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
Mr. Cohen, who reported to prison in May 2019, was recently released on furlough and is currently serving his sentence at his Manhattan home, after citing health concerns related to the coronavirus.
There is no indication that the Justice Department planned to issue a formal opinion on the campaign finances charges. Such a step, if taken, might have raised questions about the validity of the case against Mr. Cohen and affected any future effort to investigate Mr. Trump or others in his circle for similar conduct.