Attorney General William Barr is confronting one of the biggest crises of his tenure after the Justice Department reversed course on a recommendation about how long one of President Donald Trump’s allies should go to prison, prompting a team of career prosecutors to quit the case.
Coming after he helped the president navigate the special counsel’s probe of Russian election meddling and prevail in the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, Barr will be pressured to prove he’s not a political hired hand just doing the White House’s bidding.
Trump may have made Barr’s challenge tougher by tweeting congratulations on Wednesday morning for the attorney general’s intervention in the case of the president’s longtime confidant Roger Stone. Trump praised Barr for “taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”
The change to the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation on Stone — convicted of witness tampering and lying to Congress — is the second politically charged move revealed by the agency this week.
On Monday, Barr said he had created a special channel for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to share his “findings” on former Vice President Joe Biden’s connections to Ukraine — an issue that played a central role in Trump’s impeachment and trial.
The next day, four prosecutors resigned in rapid succession after the sentencing change in the Stone case. They did so after the department overruled them and scaled back its initial advice that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison. Instead, the department recommended that Stone serve three to four years.
Trump repeated public objections before and after the initial recommendation, fueling fears that law enforcement officials simply succumbed to White House pressure.
“I thought the recommendation was ridiculous, I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. “I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t speak to them,” Trump said of the Justice Department.
Not everyone found that explanation convincing.
“The president of the United States has no business interfering in the criminal trial of his own campaign adviser,” said Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The Justice Department owes the court and the American people an explanation of exactly what is happening here.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a strong Trump supporter, said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to be commenting on cases in the system.” Referring to the judge who will decide Stone’s sentence, the South Carolina Republican said “whatever she decides to do in the case of a 70-year-old man I support.”
On Twitter Tuesday night, Trump attacked the prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presided over Stone’s trial and is to sentence him on Feb. 20.
Barr, who has long argued for a strong executive branch, has faced a steady stream of criticism and controversy since he became attorney general a year ago. Trump had routinely disparaged his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia election interference investigation and has said he needed someone more loyal, pointing to President John F. Kennedy’s decision to pick his brother, Robert, for the job.
Barr appears to be filling that role for the president, as he did long before Trump appeared on the political scene. He was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush nearly three decades ago. Back then, he helped torpedo criminal prosecutions in the Iran-Contra affair by successfully advocating for Bush to issue a wave of pardons before leaving office following his election defeat to Bill Clinton.
While Barr has faced criticism, he has also been praised by law enforcement officials and other groups for his priorities in fighting crime, illegal immigration and hackers. Only hours before the four prosecutors resigned, Barr was given an award by the group Major County Sheriffs of America, where he delivered a speech defending police.
Now, having gotten Trump past the special counsel probe and impeachment since taking office again in February 2019, Barr will be under pressure to explain why his department made the Stone decision, which many legal experts said couldn’t have taken place without his consent.
Former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder said on Twitter that what Justice Department headquarters is trying to do “is unprecedented, wrong and ultimately dangerous.”
“DOJ independence is critical,” added Holder, who faced complaints from Republicans that he was too close to President Barack Obama.
A department official said the leadership believed the initial recommendation for Stone’s prison term was excessive and that it wasn’t proportional to his crimes. But the reversal and Barr’s role in it comes as the law enforcement agency considers more leniency in the sentencing of another former Trump confident, Michael Flynn, who resigned as the president’s first national security advisor after three weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to investigate the decision regarding Stone’s sentencing and whether White House officials were involved.
The Justice Department recommendation isn’t final. The judge in the case can make a decision independent of the DOJ’s guidelines. That was a reality some of the administration’s defenders pointed to after the change in recommendation.
“Sounds like some drama,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. “Judges aren’t obligated to follow the recommendation of the prosecutors anyway. What really counts is what the judge decides to do and then there’s a process to appeal and ultimately to seek clemency, if, in fact, that’s something that is justified under the facts.”