Jonathan Turley: Think twice about why the media attacks William Barr
I criticized President Trump two years ago for all his ruthless and endless attacks on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Today Attorney General William Barr is being similarly attacked by critics of the administration, as some media shows the same kind of blind rage without reason.
While I have publicly criticized Barr for some of his policies and actions, he is someone I have known personally for years and even represented with other attorneys general during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. Piling on Barr has never been more popular today, but the basis for this criticism has never been weaker. Three stories seemed to entirely break free from factual or legal moorings, and no one seemed to care.
The case of Michael Flynn has been in the media, including the hearing exploring the involvement of Barr. Of course, for Barr to be immoral, the case must be portrayed as virtually immaculate. The media coverage has steadfastly ignored disclosures about officials pushing unrelentingly for any criminal charge to use on Flynn, allegedly withholding exculpatory evidence, and giving misleading statements to the trial court.
Confirming the facts seems irrelevant to the criticism. My colleagues at George Washington University signed a letter denouncing him over the case despite new developments. The letter is written well and raises a number of legitimate issues. But some of us felt it reached conclusions before establishing any facts. It praised the work of retired Judge John Gleeson, an appointment by Judge Emmet Sullivan that some criticized. Gleeson argued against the dismissal of the case against Flynn. It stated that the brief by Gleeson showed “gross prosecutorial abuse.”
The faculty concluded it was thus established that “the attorney general once again sought to do a favor for the president.” A day after the letter was signed, the circuit court issued an opinion that ordered Sullivan to dismiss the case against Flynn and criticized the brief as an example of the “irregular” course of conduct by Sullivan. It noted that the brief by Gleeson was based on little more than the stories and facts “outside the record” to contrast the government grounds for dismissal.
New evidence further supports the Justice Department position that no legitimate investigation was tied to the original interview of Flynn, a key portion of a prosecution. Notes from fired agent Peter Strzok reveal that former director James Comey told President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden that the call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador was legitimate from the start. Yet officials continued to find a way to charge Flynn on any crime, including violations of the Logan Act.
Next is the issue of Geoffrey Berman. Barr said he was “stepping down” as the United States attorney for Manhattan to make way for Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Clayton wanted to return to New York and expressed an interest in the position. Barr had told Berman that he and Trump wanted the men to swap positions, or Berman could take over the civil division of the Justice Department.
Berman wanted to think about it, but Barr announced it. Berman issued a statement which strongly suggests his removal was an effort to influence investigations of Trump associates. The media exploded and some called for the impeachment of Barr. Meanwhile, some journalists had confirmed that the move had nothing to do with those investigations.
There is no credible allegation that Barr has hampered the investigations since becoming attorney general, and he told the United States attorneys in Manhattan to report any kind of interference to the Justice Department inspector general. I do not agree that Clayton is the best candidate for the spot. But the substantive question is whether, as reported, Barr was trying to influence the investigations of Trump associates. There is no evidence, but plenty of media coverage, to support that proposition.
Finally, the attacks on Barr returned to the case of Michael Cohen. The Daily Beast derided the insistence of Barr that it is nothing but a “media narrative” to suggest he has been acting in the interests of the president. The Daily Beast refers to Cohen as a close confidant of Trump without any mention that, by the time Barr finally raised questions about the case, the president despised Cohen and celebrated his conviction. The only person who would have been more upset with any undermining of the conviction of Cohen than the lead prosecutor would have been Trump.
The United States attorneys manual reaffirms the control of Main Justice over such interpretative policies, even though Barr apparently let it drop. Readers were never told that Barr takes the position against an expansive reading of the criminal code on offenses like those with which Cohen was charged. Soon after Barr was confirmed, Trump had denounced Cohen as “lying in order to reduce his prison time.” Indeed, Barr was taking an issue with the prison sentence that Trump was celebrating. Barr sought a legal memo “casting doubt on the legitimacy” of the conviction.
Legitimate objections can be raised about certain policies of Barr. I have criticized him for some of those, and we have disagreed for decades over constitutional law and the power of the executive branch. However, I have never known a more honest and direct individual in Washington. His real flaw is a lack of concern over the optics of his actions. Barr spends much time thinking about the right move but little time about how it is viewed. To take a line from King Lear, as the media coverage has shown over the last week, Barr is “a man more sinned against than sinning.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.
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