After a tumultuous week for federal law enforcement in which Attorney General William P. Barr declared he could not do his job if the president kept tweeting about criminal cases, and officials revealed they had dropped one politically charged case while adding new prosecutors to others, several current and former officials expressed alarm at what they characterized as a troubling pattern.
“The power to investigate is the power to destroy,” said Gregory A. Brower, a former U.S. attorney and former senior FBI official. The current approach to sensitive cases, he said, “gives the appearance of politics coming into play whenever the president has a perceived political enemy. . . . The ability to simply point to a pending investigation against a person can have devastating effects on that person and can have a potential political benefit to the person orchestrating the investigation.”
On Friday, prosecutors said they would no longer pursue a criminal case against Andrew McCabe, the former acting FBI director who has long been a target of Trump’s vitriol.
The decision infuriated the president, according to a senior White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail internal discussions. Trump ranted privately to associates about the announcement, telling one he’s always known McCabe was a “bad guy.”
While the president is angry over the decision not to charge McCabe with lying to investigators during a leak investigation, he is unlikely to fire Barr over the matter, people familiar with the matter said.
Instead, Trump has been asking for advice on whom he should fire, these people said. In recent weeks, he has focused some of his anger on Jessie Liu, the former U.S. attorney in D.C. Trump became angry at Liu — whose office handled the Roger Stone prosecution and other politically sensitive cases — after hearing complaints from allies and watching Fox News coverage about her. He withdrew her nomination on Tuesday for a senior spot at the Treasury Department, days before she was expected to testify.
Aides have urged the president not to say much publicly about the McCabe decision, and so far he has mostly heeded that advice. On Saturday morning, Trump fired off a tweet summarizing the Justice Department inspector general’s findings that McCabe misled investigators on four separate occasions about authorizing a media disclosure and stating, incorrectly, that the “IG RECOMMENDED MCCABE’S FIRING.”
Inspector General Michael Horowitz made a criminal referral of McCabe’s conduct to prosecutors, but did not specifically advise that he be fired. McCabe was fired in 2018 just as he was about to retire, costing him significant pension benefits.
Trump advisers viewed the president’s tweet as the best they could have hoped for on the subject, the senior White House official said.
Shortly after the McCabe announcement on Friday, officials said that Barr had assigned Jeff Jensen, the U.S. attorney in St. Louis, to review and “assist” prosecutors currently handling the case of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is still awaiting sentencing after having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Jensen appointment marks the latest iteration of an unusual trend inside the Justice Department of tasking outside U.S. attorneys with reviewing, managing, or reinvestigating work that would otherwise not be in their portfolio. Much of the effort seems aimed at re-examining the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose probe of possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign infuriated the president, or at targeting the president’s foes.
In 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed Utah’s U.S. attorney, John Huber, to investigate old corruption allegations against Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and Trump’s opponent in the 2016 campaign, on issues that had been covered previously by other federal prosecutors. That assignment came amid pressure from Republican lawmakers for appointment of a second special counsel.
The next year, the Justice Department tasked the U.S. attorney in Chicago, John Lausch, to oversee the turnover to Congress of internal FBI documents about Clinton.
Last year, Barr tapped Connecticut’s U.S. attorney, John Durham, to investigate how U.S. intelligence agencies investigated Russian interference in the last presidential election.
More recently, Barr assigned Scott W. Brady, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, to take information from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who wants to provide the Justice Department with material alleging wrongdoing related to former vice president Joe Biden and his family.
And now, the top federal prosecutor from St. Louis is working on the Flynn case that has long been handled by federal prosecutors in D.C.
Taken together, the moves have fueled suspicion inside and outside the department.
Such decisions are not unprecedented. In 2009, President Obama’s first attorney general, Eric Holder, expanded an investigation Durham was conducting into the treatment of detained terror suspects, and at the time, many in the intelligence community bristled at the idea that conduct that had been investigated once already would be investigated again.
But it is highly unusual to do this as often as the Trump administration has.
“If this Justice Department had done it once, you might understand, but they have done it over and over, and it’s only ever to re-examine an outcome that the president didn’t like,” said Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for Holder, who said the practice does “enormous harm” to the department’s reputation. “When you are constantly launching politically motivated probes, the public can’t tell which investigations are legitimate and which are political, and ultimately they question everything. And that is clearly part of the goal.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Inside the Justice Department and U.S. attorney’s offices around the country, career employees took a wide range of views on Barr’s recent actions — particularly his extraordinary Thursday interview with ABC News, when he said Trump’s commentary makes it “impossible for me to do my job.”
Some inside the department were heartened by his remarks. “Finally,” one career Justice Department employee told The Washington Post.
But others were more skeptical — wondering if Barr and Trump had orchestrated the interview as a means to provide the attorney general with political cover to continue executing influence over the cases Trump has fixated on most. That cynicism only grew deeper when it was revealed new prosecutors had been added to the Flynn case.
People close to the attorney general say his frustration with Trump is genuine, and that Barr had privately expressed his concerns to the president more than once in recent weeks. When those efforts did not seem to have the desired effect, Barr decided to speak out publicly, these people said.
Current and former officials said the move to add new prosecutors to the Flynn case seemed to be part of a new pattern of Justice Department political leadership spinning up inquiries that might help Trump and his friends and hurt their perceived foes.
David Laufman, a former chief of the Justice Department’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, said such reviews are “enormously demoralizing, certainly for the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., and I would imagine throughout the Department of Justice and U.S. attorneys offices nationwide.”
Laufman said he was baffled at why the various U.S. attorneys accept such missions. “Why would they be associating themselves with investigations that are evocative of the manner in which repressive regimes throughout history have behaved?”
Representatives for Durham and Jensen did not respond to questions for this report. A spokeswoman for Brady declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Huber also declined to comment.