How far is Attorney General William Barr willing to go in showing that he considers loyalty to Donald Trump more important than any pretense of delivering impartial law? At least as far as St. Louis. Because that’s where Barr went to hire one of a team of prosecutors whom he has charged with ripping into cases built by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C.
As The New York Times reports, this outside team of attorneys has spent the last two weeks “grilling line prosecutors” about cases. But not just any cases: those cases special to Trump. That includes looking at every step of the investigation, prosecution, and sentencing. And that review is looking not just at how these cases were handled, but also at who was involved at every step. Because finding scapegoats is definitely part of the agenda.
Seen in this light, the resignation of the four prosecutors on the Roger Stone case wasn’t a snap response to a single instance of Barr overruling their decisions. It was the endgame following weeks in which the entire U.S. attorney’s office in Washington was subject to badgering from a team of hand-selected political hitmen, brought in to second-guess every action and undermine each decision. As the Times article puts it, these actions mean subjecting the office to “a secondary layer of monitoring and control over what career prosecutors have been doing.”
Over the last week, Trump has tweeted attacks on the prosecuting attorneys who set the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone. He’s challenged the impartiality of the judge in charge of the case. He has even gone after the jury foreman with charges of bias.
But Trump’s tweets were not happening in a vacuum. In fact, they weren’t even coming first. Barr had placed his review team over the Washington office before Trump began his series of 280-character tirades against everyone involved in the Stone trial. Barr’s blathering on about how he was tired of Trump telling him what to do wasn’t just deceptive—it was a reversal of the truth. Barr was already tearing into those cases. Undoubtedly, Trump was aware of what Barr was doing to rip up the paperwork on Flynn and Stone when he issued his tweets.
One focus of the investigation was not just determining the actions that were taken in preparing a case, but putting names to them. As with the whistleblower, as with all the claims about a FISA warrant that had nothing to do with the start of the Trump-Russia investigation, this suggests attention being placed on finding someone who can be accused of being a Democrat, or a Hillary fan, or a Never Trumper as a way of further politicizing the investigation. That’s all Fox News needs to begin dispensing pitchforks, and it’s all Trump requires before he limbers up his pardon pen.
One thing that also becomes clear is that the move to bring in this political control team was coordinated with the abrupt departure of former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu. As blogger emptywheel pointed out on Friday, Trump had originally said that Liu would be kept onboard pending her appointment as undersecretary of the Treasury. That didn’t happen. Instead, Liu was jerked out of her role and replaced by interim United States Attorney Timothy Shea under a very special rule that allowed Shea to take over immediately.
During Barr’s deceptive interview, he noted that Shea had already been asking questions about Stone’s case even before he was given that assignment. Shea hit the ground running with the absolute intention of softening Roger Stone’s sentence on his very first day. It’s why Liu was pulled, and why Shea went in as an interim attorney.
While Barr was complaining that Trump was giving him directions, Barr was already manipulating the system to secure light sentences for Flynn and Stone. And Barr had appointed a team of second-guessers to go over every case “of interest to Trump” for loopholes and scapegoats. Through it all, Barr’s statements were contradictory, misleading, and designed to hide what was really in the works.
Congress cannot wait until March to talk to William Barr.