WASHINGTON – With the end of the Russia investigation looming, William Barr went to Capitol Hill soon after taking office to assure anxious lawmakers he was fully engaged in “landing the plane” for the public rollout of Robert Mueller’s explosive 22-month inquiry.
Barr’s ultimate intervention unleashed a political firestorm: He concluded in part that there was insufficient evidence to charge President Donald Trump with obstruction of justice.
It was only the beginning.
A year after his confirmation Feb. 14, 2019, Barr and his Justice Department have embraced the mantle of Trump’s defender-in-chief even if it risks sacrificing the department’s long-prized independence, former Justice officials and legal analysts said.
His agency’s decision to back away from a stiff prison sentence recommended for Trump confidant Roger Stone has brought fresh recriminations. Democrats have called for an investigation, and Barr has been summoned back to Capitol Hill to explain himself.
From the White House, however, there was the requisite, warm acknowledgement from an appreciative president.
“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump tweeted Wednesday, a day after four federal prosecutors assigned to Stone’s case withdrew from the case in apparent protest.
Indeed, Barr has stepped into the breach at virtually every opportunity to guide Trump to safe harbor and offer a muscular defense of the president’s authority.
The attorney general helped shield the president from the most damning of Mueller’s findings. Barr’s public summary of Mueller’s findings led the special counsel to complain that his report had been mischaracterized.
Last spring, Barr startled lawmakers by declaring that federal authorities had spied on the president’s campaign. Then he announced a new investigation into the origins of Mueller’s inquiry.
In August, the Justice Department delayed Congress from receiving a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. And in a stinging address in November before the Federalist Society, Barr endorsed a sweeping view of presidential authority and cast the myriad investigations that have shadowed his boss as “sabotage.”
Earlier this week, analysts said, the attorney general may have taken his most provocative step yet when top Justice Department officials backtracked on prosecutors’ recommended sentence for Stone.
GOP wary of Stone intervention:‘I don’t think that’s appropriate’: Trump’s involvement in Roger Stone case draws criticism from GOP senators
Though department officials maintained the White House played no role in the decision, it came hours after Trump tweeted his displeasure with the stiff prison term prosecutors had recommended the night before.
A department official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, has said prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation surprised department leaders and represented an “extreme, excessive and disproportionate” punishment.
Yet no former Justice officials or legal experts who spoke to USA TODAY could recall anything that would compare – both the reversal and prosecutors’ walkout.
“I am unaware of any prior situation in which DOJ responded so obviously to the wishes of the president to change its position in a criminal matter,” said William Yeomans, a former Justice official whose service started under Jimmy Carter and ended under George W. Bush.
“Because Attorney General Barr has consistently behaved in an overtly political manner to serve the president, it is impossible to credit any explanation other than that the (attorney general) acted as he did in response to the president’s tweet,” Yeomans said.
“That is a chilling abuse of his power that damages the notion that the Department of Justice is guided by the rule of law, rather than the tweets of this president.”
David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney in New Mexico appointed by President George W. Bush, cast the reversal in Stone’s case as “reminiscent of a Third World country.”
“It is another example of the president meddling in the affairs of the Justice Department because he can, not because he should,” Iglesias said. “It is corrosive to the rule of law. It sends a terrible message.”
Iglesias confronted something similar 14 years ago.
He was one of nine U.S. attorneys abruptly removed by the George W. Bush administration for largely political considerations, a scandal that resulted in the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Iglesias had refused to act on pressure applied by Republican lawmakers in New Mexico, including then-Sen. Pete Domenici, to prosecute a local Democrat. Weeks later, Iglesias’ tenure as the state’s chief federal prosecutor was over.
“Both things are equally wrong,” Iglesias said, referring to his dismissal and the recent developments in the Stone case. “But interfering in an ongoing prosecution – with a sentencing still pending – strikes me as even more serious.
“In six years as a federal prosecutor, I don’t recall it happening one time,” he said.
The four prosecutors who withdrew Tuesday from Stone’s case – Aaron Zelinsky, Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed and Michael Marando – have not responded to requests for comment. All four submitted one-page notices to the court announcing their exit. Kravis’ letter added that he was leaving the Justice Department entirely.
Trump asserted the four “cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9-year prison sentence to a man that got caught up in an investigation that was illegal –the Mueller scam.”
Stone was the last of a half-dozen former Trump aides and associates to be swept up in Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Zelinsky and Jed had been members of Mueller’s team.
Stone supporters joined the president, some of whom have called for him to pardon his longtime ally.
“Roger Stone was targeted by dirty cops because, despite all their illegal efforts, they failed to get Trump,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser, echoing Trump’s narrative. “By imprisoning Stone, they think they imprison the president.”
Yet many Democratic lawmakers and former Justice officials heaped their ire on Barr’s Justice Department.
Late Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee announced Barr had agreed to testify before the panel on March 31. The invitation from Chairman Jerry Nadler, D.N.Y., carried a warning.
“In your tenure as attorney general, you have engaged in a pattern of conduct in legal matters relating to the president that raises significant concern for this committee,” Nadler wrote. The handling of the Stone case and other actions, he wrote, had raised “grave questions about your leadership of the Department of Justice.”
Nadler signaled that the committee would probe the department’s handling of other high-profile cases, including a recently revised sentencing recommendation for former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. He pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Last month, prosecutors in that case softened their position, suggesting probation could be an “appropriate” punishment for the retired Army general. The filing represented a slight departure from an earlier recommendation for a sentence of up to six months in prison.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate the Stone case.
“The president is claiming that rigging the rules is perfectly legitimate – he claims an ‘absolute right’ to order the Justice Department to do anything he wants,” Schumer said Wednesday. “And the president has as his attorney general an enabler – and that’s a kind word – who actually supports this view.”
Paul Charlton, the former chief federal prosecutor in Arizona, was among the nine U.S. attorneys removed in the 2006 purge by the Bush administration. Now he teaches prosecutorial ethics at Arizona State University’s law school.
Charlton declined to criticize Barr or Trump but lauded the prosecutors who quit the Stone case.
“What I see,” Charlton said, “is the integrity of the justice system being protected by these line prosecutors, cautioning that the prospect of additional resignations by prosecutors would be cause for concern.
“I think that is something to be worried about.”
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