'William Barr is not done': experts raise concerns about attorney general's legal reach

\'William Barr is not done\': experts raise concerns about attorney general\'s legal reach  

Legal experts and and alumnae of the US Department of Justice have begun sounding the alarm about Donald Trump's attorney general, William Barr.

Recently Barr's justice department withdrew charges against Michael Flynn, the former Trump administration national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to federal law enforcement officials about his dealings with Russia's ambassador over sanctions, just before Trump took office.

Barr's decision last week was a stunning reversal and spurred rare rebukes from a large swath of legal experts and former attorneys who worked at the justice department under both Democratic and Republican presidents. And speaking at a fundraiser with thousands of former officials from his administration and previous campaigns, Barack Obama issued a strong warning that the move jeopardized the "rule of law" in the country.

Related: Welcome to William Barr's America, where the truth makes way for the president | Lloyd Green

Barr's decision highlighted ongoing anxiety about the lasting impact the current attorney general will have on the position of attorney general and the department of justice overall.

On Monday, more than 1,900 former and current justice department officials reiterated their call for Barr to step down for having "once again assaulted the rule of law".

The group that organized the letter collected more than 2,600 signatures for a similar letter in February after the justice department moved to reduce the sentence of Roger Stone, a former Trump administration aide who was convicted in cases that came out of special counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation. At the time, a number of prosecutors resigned in protest because of the proposed sentencing reductions.

"Speaking as somebody who has spent 19 years at the department of justice, the way I have seen William Barr serve as attorney general seems very different to me than the way attorneys general have behaved in the past," said Barbara McQuade, a former United States attorney during the Obama administration.

She added: "Their job is to be the attorney for the people, to be independent of the White House and instead William Barr has conducted himself in ways that make him seem more like he is a lawyer for Donald Trump."

Trump recently said of Stone "look at the horrible treatment he's got. He's going to be OK. He's going to be OK," which some federal prosecutors interpreted as a possible precursor to Barr doing more in Stone's case.

The justice department has been a source of frustration for the president.

Trump first appointed then-senator Jeff Sessions to the post. Sessions, a longtime US senator from Alabama, was the first member of his chamber to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump often complained that Sessions was not doing enough to "protect him". Trump eventually became dissatisfied with Sessions, particularly his decision to recuse himself from Mueller's Russia investigation, and replaced him briefly with Matthew Whitaker, a Trump loyalist, as acting attorney general.

Since Barr succeeded Whitaker in February 2019, legal experts have pointed out the close alignment he's had with Trump. McQuade said Barr has often intervened in cases relating to Trump associates.

"Now we're seeing him interfere in cases that involve close associates of President Trump," McQuade said. "Certainly as the attorney general he has the authority to do anything he wants in any case. But he doesn't. He doesn't meddle in every case, he's only involved in these cases involving Trump's associates."

Former justice department officials and legal experts have suggested that Barr is acting more like Trump's personal attorney rather than the top law enforcement official for the federal government. And since the conclusion of Mueller's Russia investigation and even since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic Trump has repeatedly ousted or sidelined critics within the federal government.

McQuade wondered if Barr, with a sense of confidence from Trump, could try and go after higher-profile political figures in the future. Trump and his allies have vaguely been suggesting that Trump himself was the target of of a vague "Obamagate" scheme.

"Just looking a little further down the road, one concern is that William Barr is not done, that not only is he protecting Trump's friends, that he might use Trump's justice department not only as a shield but as a sword to go after Trump's enemies -[Joe] Biden, Jim Comey, Obama, Hillary Clinton," McQuade said. "Could he use the justice department to go after them?"

One former federal prosecutor, who requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly, worried that Barr had "set a precedent" where the "next time DoJ could be used in the same political way".

Meanwhile Elkan Abromowitz, one of the former justice department officials who signed the most recent alumni letter, said that the upcoming presidential election could strongly dictate the future role of the department.

If Trump wins, Abromowitz said, Barr will likely keep his role. But if the former Vice President, Joe Biden, now the presumptive Democratic party nominee, wins, the attorney general and DoJ could undergo significant restructuring.

"What I think is going to happen is if Trump loses the election, there's probably going to be a major push to restructure the justice department out of the cabinet and make it like an independent agency like the Fed or the SEC where the attorney general would be given a 10-year term, pretty much like the FBI," Abromowitz said.

Abromowitz added, "If Trump wins re-election? He'll probably keep Barr around for as long as he can."


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