William Barr officially becomes Trump's personal attorney — with the power of the US Department of Justice behind him
On Tuesday, Donald Trump tweeted that the sentencing recommendations for his longtime associate Roger Stone were unfair. Stone, who was convicted in federal court on seven counts, including lying to Congress and obstruction, including death threats against a judge and threats to murder a witness’ dog, could have received 20 years in prison or more. The recommended sentence of seven to nine years was solidly in the middle of the possible range and was made by a quartet of veteran prosecutors.
But rather than ignoring Trump’s tweet, within hours Attorney General William Barr had instructed the Department of Justice to take an appallingly unprecedented move. The DOJ announced that it was overruling the action of the U.S. attorneys in order to reduce Stone’s suggested sentence—even as Trump threatened to pardon his henchman altogether. It was a moment when American justice teetered on the edge.
Then, overnight, it fell over completely. And the attorney general of the United States officially became Trump’s personal attorney.
Three of the four U.S. attorneys who signed on to Stone’s sentencing recommendation have now withdrawn from the case in protest. At least one has resigned from the DOJ entirely. Rather than seeing this as a moment to rethink how much he had been putting his thumb on the scale of justice, Trump responded by slamming down his whole fat hand. Trump spent the night mocking and threatening the career prosecutors, accusing them of being allies of Robert Mueller, then accusing Mueller of lying to Congress—one of the same charges on which Roger Stone was convicted.
It was a staggering sequence of events—Trump demanding a lighter sentence for someone who participated in both collusion and obstruction for Trump’s own campaign; Barr stepping in to give Trump what he wants; U.S. attorneys who had spent their whole careers with the Justice Department protesting in the only way available to them by resigning; Trump responding by mocking them and threatening to prosecute both them and others. In a matter of just a few hours, every possible flare had been launched to reveal that the Department of Justice wasn’t just being politicized—it was being corrupted, turned into an instrument of Trump’s will.
And then Barr doubled down. As NBC News reports, Barr has taken “control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump.” That includes persecution of Trump’s enemies, such as former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. That includes protecting Trump allies such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. Barr isn’t turning the Justice Department into a political instrument—he’s already done that. He’s using his role to create revisionist history and to actively support and generate nothing less than corruption.
The entire Ukraine plot underlying the impeachment of Donald Trump revolved around a corrupt prosecutor general who persecuted political opponents but refused to go after his allies, no matter how large their crimes. And what Trump learned from this is was that that way of operating was a really good idea.
Fortunately, Trump already had William Barr on hand. Barr has already proven, with his manipulation of the special counsel’s report and his round-the-world conspiracy hunt, that he’s up to the job. And now the attorney general of the United States has officially made himself Donald Trump’s personal attorney—except that this personal attorney has the ability to protect Trump’s friends, persecute his enemies, and bring an end to the idea of apolitical justice in America.
Barr’s interference in Stone’s case follows his already reaching into that of Michael Flynn. Flynn, one of Trump’s former national security advisers, whose convictions were limited to lying to the FBI only because he had made a deal to provide information to the FBI in a number of other cases—including his illegal lobbying for Turkey and his participation in a plot to kidnap a U.S. resident cleric and return him to certain death in Turkey—began backing away from his deal and stalling on sentencing hearings last year. As a result of Flynn breaking his deal, prosecutors recommended a six-month sentence—and an angry judge seemed to agree that Flynn was still getting off easy. Then, in the midst of the process, Barr withdrew the attorney who had been handling Flynn’s case from the beginning and replaced him with a new attorney who rewrote the sentencing guidelines to suggest that there was no need for Flynn to be punished for his lying, obstruction, and defiance of investigators. Instead, the new recommendation was probation.
What’s happening in both the Flynn and the Stone cases is an overt subversion of the role of the attorney general and the Department of Justice. And Trump isn’t backing away—far from it. He has stated that he has an “absolute right” to tell the DOJ what to do. In addition to threatening the attorneys who withdrew from the case, Trump also expressed “congratulations” to Bill Barr in his new role of minister of justice, or prosecutor general, or whatever.
When the Republicans in the Senate voted to allow Trump to get away with abuse of power and obstruction, he did learn a lesson. But it was the same lesson he’d learned before—that he can do anything. There are no laws except the laws that Trump declares. No justice except that which he permits. No republic remaining except what he deigns to allow.
That may seem like an exaggeration. It’s not.