Barr stands by Trump – at all costs

At­tor­ney gen­eral steps into line of fire again

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son, Kris­tine Phillips and Den­nis Wag­ner

WASH­ING­TON – With the end of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion loom­ing, Wil­liam Barr went to Capi­tol Hill soon af­ter tak­ing office 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 in­ter­ven­tion un­leashed a po­lit­i­cal firestorm: He con­cluded there was in­sufficient ev­i­dence to charge Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump with ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. It was only the be­gin­ning. A year af­ter his confirma­tion Feb. 14, 2019, Barr and his Jus­tice De­part­ment have em­braced the man­tle of Trump’s de­fender- in- chief even if it risks sac­rificing the de­part­ment’s long- prized independen­ce, for­mer Jus­tice officials and le­gal an­a­lysts said.

His agency’s de­ci­sion to back away from a stiff prison sen­tence rec­om­mended for Trump confidant 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 offer a mus­cu­lar de­fense of the pres­i­dent’s au­thor­ity. The at­tor­ney gen­eral helped shield the pres­i­dent from the most damn­ing of Mueller’s find­ings, and Barr’s pub­lic sum­mary 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 Con

gress 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.”

This week, an­a­lysts said, the at­tor­ney gen­eral may have taken his most provoca­tive step yet when top Jus­tice De­part­ment officials back­tracked on prose­cu­tors’ rec­om­mended sen­tence for Stone. Though de­part­ment officials 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 official, who was not au­tho­rized to comment pub­licly, has said prose­cu­tors’ rec­om­men­da­tion sur­prised de­part­ment lead­ers and rep­re­sented an “ex­treme, ex­ces­sive and dis­pro­por­tion­ate” pun­ish­ment. Yet no for­mer Jus­tice officials or le­gal ex­perts who spoke to USA TO­DAY could re­call any­thing that would com­pare – both to the re­ver­sal and the 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 official whose ser­vice started un­der Jimmy Carter and ended un­der Ge­orge W. Bush.

“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.”

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 onepage no­tices to the court an­nounc­ing their exit. Kravis’ let­ter added that he was leav­ing the Jus­tice De­part­ment en­tirely.

Trump said 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.

Some Stone sup­port­ers have called for Trump to par­don his long­time ally.

“Roger Stone was tar­geted by dirty cops be­cause, de­spite all their il­le­gal efforts, they failed to get Trump,” said Michael Ca­puto, a for­mer Trump cam­paign aide.

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 sig­nificant con­cern for this com­mit­tee.” The han­dling of the Stone case and other ac­tions, he wrote, had raised “grave ques­tions about your lead­er­ship of the De­part­ment of Jus­tice.”

Wil­liam Barr

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