Attorney General Barr is in a mess — and has no one to blame but himself

Over the last week, thousands of DOJ alumni (I was one) signed on to a statement calling for Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrFeds distributing masks, other gear seized in price-gouging investigation to NY, NJ health care workers The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All eyes on today's unemployment numbers Trump announces enhanced counternarcotics operation at coronavirus briefing MORE’s resignation because he had violated the department’s “sacred obligation to ensure equal justice under the law.” We felt Barr had done so by withdrawing the sentencing recommendation for convicted Trump loyalist Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneJuan Williams: Mueller, one year on House Judiciary Committee postpones hearing with Barr amid coronavirus outbreak Trump 'strongly considering' full pardon for Flynn MORE after it was criticized by the president in a tweet (more about the actual sentence in a moment).   

Turns out, the DOJ alumni may have done Barr a favor. By resigning, he might salvage his reputation. But by staying, Barr certainly won’t stop Trump’s rampage against the federal justice system. And he risks being remembered as the attorney general who abandoned the DOJ’s commitment to integrity and impartiality.    

The firestorm over the withdrawal of the Stone sentencing recommendation led Barr, who insisted that he had not communicated with Trump about the Stone case, to draw a line in the sand. He told ABC News that Trump’s public statements and tweets about the department’s cases and federal judges presiding over them “make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”

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Trump promptly ignored Barr and tweet-attacked federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presides in the Stone case; the prosecutors who had resigned from the case after Barr’s intervention; and the jury foreperson. He even demanded that Barr “clean shop” and suggested that a special counsel should investigate a “seditious conspiracy” at the DOJ and FBI.  Then Trump attacked the fairness of Stone’s prosecution just as Judge Jackson sentenced Stone, who had threatened her, to a very fair 3 years and 4 months in prison, which was substantially below the original recommendation of 7 to 9 years.

At this writing Barr is still doing the job that, by his own account, President Trump has made it “impossible” for him to do. Barr is an experienced Washington lawyer, but he doesn’t get the Mean Streets rules that Trump plays by. If you call out a bully like Trump and then back down, he will own you. 

Barr largely brought this on himself. As a lawyer in private practice, Barr submitted a highly publicized memorandum on the Mueller investigation to then-Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinFull appeals court to rehear case over McGahn subpoena Graham starts closed-door depositions in FISA probe Attorney General Barr is in a mess — and has no one to blame but himself MORE. In arguing that the investigation was fatally flawed, Barr wrote in italics that “all federal law enforcement power” is vested in the president, including “prosecutorial discretion.” 

Unfortunately, the memorandum did not explain the vital importance of exercising that extraordinary power, which is done through the DOJ, free of political considerations or influence. Trump’s assertion of a “legal right” to influence criminal investigations, which so far he appears to have done on the basis of whether the defendants and targets are his political friends or enemies, might be traced to Barr’s memorandum. 

Some of Barr’s highest-profile official acts may have further reinforced Trump’s confidence that his attorney general served him and not the nation. As though he were checking off the boxes on a Trump political agenda, Barr “whitewashed the Mueller report; rejected the DOJ Inspector General’s conclusion that the Russia probe had begun properly; asserted without any apparent foundation that the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference amounted to “spying” on the Trump campaign; ordered a review of the case of another convicted Trump loyalist, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; and intervened in the Stone sentencing.  

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Trump did not get his way when the DOJ declined to bring charges against former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeTrump shakes up Justice Department, intelligence community Trump allies assembled lists of officials considered disloyal to president: report Bill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn MORE. Nonetheless, in recently expressing “total confidence” in Barr, Trump evidently reached the same conclusion as the DOJ alumni statement, namely, that  Barr is doing “the President’s personal bidding.”  

The DOJ’s mission statement is, among other things, to “ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” Is that precious feature of our democracy about to slip away from us?  No one can predict the future, but the warning lights are blinking red across the board at the DOJ.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.