Barr stands by Trump – at all costs
Attorney general steps into line of fire again
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 intervention unleashed a political firestorm: He concluded 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, 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 officials backtracked on prosecutors’ recommended sentence for Stone. 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’ 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 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 official 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 efforts, 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 significant 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.”