Scru­tiny: Trump tweet draws Barr into sen­tenc­ing con­tro­versy.

Trump tweet draws at­tor­ney gen­eral di­rectly into con­tro­versy

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT ZAPOTOSKY AND DEVLIN BAR­RETT [email protected]­post.com devlin.bar­[email protected]­post.com Spencer S. Hsu and Ann E. Marimow con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Pres­i­dent Trump on Wed­nes­day put At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr squarely in the mid­dle of the brew­ing con­tro­versy over the Justice Depart­ment’s sen­tenc­ing rec­om­men­da­tion for Trump’s long­time friend Roger Stone, prais­ing Barr for seiz­ing com­mand of the case from ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors.

The pres­i­dent’s Twit­ter mes­sage came just a day af­ter the Justice Depart­ment was again thrust into a po­lit­i­cal firestorm, when the four pros­e­cu­tors on the Stone case with­drew from the pro­ceed­ings amid a dis­pute over what penalty they should pro­pose for the pres­i­dent’s close as­so­ciate.

Le­gal an­a­lysts and oth­ers said the episode rep­re­sented a low mo­ment for the agency, sug­gest­ing that its Trump-ap­pointed lead­ers were bend­ing to the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal whims and try­ing to un­der­mine the last pros­e­cu­tion brought by former spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III as part of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Trump, though, made clear he was pleased with the depart­ment’s moves — and with Barr, in par­tic­u­lar.

“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 wrote. “Ev­i­dence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was im­prop­erly brought & tainted.”

A Justice Depart­ment spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment on the pres­i­dent’s state­ments.

Some cur­rent and former Justice Depart­ment of­fi­cials have long feared that Barr is will­ing to risk the in­sti­tu­tion’s his­toric in­de­pen­dence to serve an iras­ci­ble pres­i­dent. The top Demo­crat in the Sen­ate called for the Justice Depart­ment in­spec­tor gen­eral to in­ves­ti­gate the Stone episode, and the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee an­nounced Wed­nes­day that it would have Barr tes­tify March 31 to ad­dress that case and other re­cent in­ci­dents that it said “raise grave ques­tions” about Barr’s lead­er­ship.

Among those is Barr’s re­cent ac­knowl­edg­ment that he had cre­ated what he called an “in­take process” for Trump’s per­sonal lawyer Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani to give the Justice Depart­ment what Gi­u­liani has al­leged is dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about former vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and his fam­ily.

Two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said Barr has in­structed the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Pitts­burgh to han­dle such in­for­ma­tion. Gi­u­liani’s al­le­ga­tions are par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic for the Justice Depart­ment be­cause he is the pres­i­dent’s lawyer, and un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in New York for his busi­ness ties to two men ac­cused of break­ing cam­paign fi­nance laws.

Barr also has faced crit­i­cism for his han­dling of the Mueller probe — par­tic­u­larly those cases, in­clud­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of Stone, that have con­tin­ued af­ter the clo­sure of the spe­cial coun­sel’s of­fice last year.

Stone was con­victed by a jury in Novem­ber of ob­struct­ing Congress and wit­ness in­tim­i­da­tion. Ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors on the case — work­ing out of the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in the District — on Mon­day filed their rec­om­men­da­tion on what penalty Stone should face when he is sen­tenced Feb. 20.

The rec­om­men­da­tion, though, proved to be thornier than most, as the ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors sparred with their su­per­vi­sors over what was ap­pro­pri­ate. The pros­e­cu­tors ar­gued the sen­tenc­ing guide­lines called for seven to nine years in pri­son. Po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship at the Justice Depart­ment, though, pushed for some­thing less, ar­gu­ing Stone’s con­duct did not merit a lengthy ad­di­tion to his sen­tence.

On Mon­day, it seemed the ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors had won out. All four signed on to a rec­om­men­da­tion, also en­dorsed by in­terim U.S. at­tor­ney for the District of Columbia Ti­mothy Shea, that rec­om­mended a sen­tence based on a guide­lines cal­cu­la­tion. The move en­raged Trump, who tweeted early the next morn­ing: “This is a hor­ri­ble and very un­fair sit­u­a­tion.”

Hours later, a se­nior Justice Depart­ment of­fi­cial said depart­ment lead­er­ship was “shocked” at the rec­om­men­da­tion and would move to undo it. All four ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors moved to with­draw from the case, with one quit­ting the govern­ment en­tirely.

The Justice Depart­ment then filed a new rec­om­men­da­tion — signed by Shea and a dif­fer­ent ca­reer pros­e­cu­tor — that said the pre­vi­ous guid­ance “could be con­sid­ered ex­ces­sive and un­war­ranted un­der the cir­cum­stances.” It did not ad­vo­cate for a spe­cific penalty but sug­gested three to four years in pri­son would be rea­son­able.

Kerri Ku­pec, a Justice Depart­ment spokes­woman, said that the depart­ment had de­cided be­fore Trump’s Tues­day tweet to re­vise the rec­om­men­da­tion and that there were no dis­cus­sions be­tween the White House and Justice Depart­ment about the Stone case in the days lead­ing up to the pros­e­cu­tors’ guid­ance.

A Justice Depart­ment of­fi­cial said se­nior lead­ers at the agency had ex­pected the first Stone fil­ing to say what the sec­ond fil­ing did.

Of­fi­cials have not pro­vided a clear time­line of the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween ca­reer pros­e­cu­tors and depart­ment lead­er­ship, or fully ex­plained how lead­er­ship could have been taken aback by the ini­tial sen­tenc­ing rec­om­men­da­tion. Shea was a coun­selor in Barr’s of­fice be­fore he was named as in­terim U.S. at­tor­ney last month. Also in­volved in the dis­cus­sions was David Met­calf, who had been a coun­selor in Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jef­frey A. Rosen’s of­fice and now works for Shea.

A spokesman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice de­clined to com­ment or ad­dress ques­tions about Shea and Met­calf ’s han­dling of the mat­ter.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump praised At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr for “tak­ing charge” of a sen­tenc­ing rec­om­men­da­tion for Roger Stone.

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