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Trump, Barr fuel Justice Department turmoil over cases tied to White House

Attorney General William Barr participates in a press conference at the Department of Justice along with Department of Justice officials on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger / Tribune News Service)
Attorney General William Barr participates in a press conference at the Department of Justice along with Department of Justice officials on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger / Tribune News Service)
By Chris Strohm Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr threw his Justice Department into turmoil this week as he seized control of cases tied to Donald Trump, risking a rebellion within the ranks, and publicly criticized the president amid accusations both men have politicized America’s top law enforcement agency.

In the span of five days, Barr revealed that he’s established a private channel for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to relay his allegations on Ukraine and ordered prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for Trump associate Roger Stone. News also surfaced that Barr has moved to review the prosecution of Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser.

At week’s end, the Justice Department’s reputation for independence was under siege in a way it hadn’t seen since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. Barr had managed to take steps that seemed likely to anger everyone from Trump to Democrats and Justice Department career prosecutors.

“The history of the department, when it’s written, will have two parts – before Trump and after Trump,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor. “This is the hinge.”

After the beleaguered tenure of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Barr will have the biggest hand in shaping that history. Having helped Trump navigate through a special counsel probe of Russian election interference and an impeachment crisis, Barr now faces the biggest test of his leadership since taking over one year ago.

Critics, including former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump weeks into his presidency, said the department’s reputation for independence built on the ashes of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s was being demolished.

“The Justice Department is not a tool of any president to be used for retribution or camouflage,” Yates wrote Friday in the Washington Post. “From virtually the moment he took office, President Trump has attempted to use the Justice Department as a cudgel against his enemies and as a shield for himself and his allies.”

Adding to the week’s controversies – and confusion – Barr issued a rare public rebuke of Trump on Thursday over the president’s constant tweets and comments about Justice Department cases, saying he can’t perform his duties if he appears to be politically influenced.

“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” Barr said in an interview Thursday with ABC News. “It’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases.”

And the department announced Friday that it won’t prosecute former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, despite Trump’s repeated demands to go after him.

Soon after taking office last year, Barr established himself as one of Trump’s most loyal Cabinet aides. He returned to the Justice Department after having been attorney general under President George H.W. Bush almost three decades ago. Long known as an advocate of executive power, Barr had helped sink criminal prosecutions in the Iran-Contra affair by successfully advocating for Bush to issue a wave of pardons before leaving office.

Barr has repeatedly rejected accusations that he’s doing Trump’s political bidding, saying “the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” Trump undercut his attorney general on Twitter Friday, arguing he does have the power to intervene if he wishes: “This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!”

Barr said he acted in the case of Stone – who was convicted of witness tampering and lying to Congress – because he thought the initial Justice Department recommendation of seven to nine years in prison was too severe. Instead, in a move with few parallels, the department revoked its recommendation and filed a new one, arguing for a maximum of four years and citing extenuating circumstances should the judge in the case choose an even lesser penalty.

Four career prosecutors resigned in quick succession from the Stone case rather than stand by Barr’s decision. But Trump praised and congratulated Barr for downgrading the sentencing recommendation – and ridiculed the front-line prosecutors.

“This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” Trump tweeted on Monday after the initial Justice Department filing. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Barr’s decision to review the Flynn prosecution, first reported by the New York Times, was another sign he’s taking a personal interest in cases being handled by the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia, including those that were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Barr has appointed U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen to examine the case against Flynn and potentially other matters, according to a person familiar with the decision.

Flynn, who stepped down after less than a month as national security adviser, pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador. He’s since accused prosecutors of “egregious misconduct” and sought to have the charges dismissed.

Barr recently appointed one of his top aides, Timothy Shea, to be acting U.S. attorney for the D.C. office.

The attorney general’s supporters pushed back on accusations that he’s a hired political hand, pointing to the department’s announcement Friday that it has closed the criminal investigation of McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who was dismissed after an internal review of his role in disclosing a Clinton Foundation probe to the media. Trump has frequently tweeted denunciations of McCabe, who he’s described as a “disgraced” official who was “fired for lying.”

But that won’t appease the attorney general’s critics. Nine Democratic senators, including presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, called on Friday for Barr to resign over the intervention in Stone’s case.

“The shocking actions taken by you or your senior staff to seek special protections for Mr. Stone make a mockery of your responsibilities to seek equal justice under the law and reveal that you are unfit to head the DOJ,” according to the letter.

The week’s developments escalated a long-percolating debate over whether Trump is meddling inappropriately in the Justice Department – and whether Barr is letting him do it. In September, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said at a hearing that “it’s a banana republic” when an impression is created that ”undo pressure is brought to bear” even if it doesn’t affect an eventual decision.

“I just think the integrity of the process is being unduly undermined by inappropriate comments and actions on the part of people at the top of our government,” he said in a hearing on a lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that the organization, an advocacy group, got permission to unseal on Friday. ”And I think as a government and as a society we’re going to pay a price at some point for this.”

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