The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Justice Department becomes a political hit squad for an unleashed president

Attorney General William P. Barr calls on a reporter during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

President Trump, empowered by acquittal in his impeachment trial and allowed free rein by his Republican Senate allies, has waged a war of vengeance and retribution against those who declined to enable his impeachable conduct. Now he has taken a club to the Justice Department.

The Post reports on the four prosecutors who refused to go along with their boss’s directive to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone following Trump’s tweet criticizing the seven- to nine-year sentence recommendation:

All four career prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone, a confidant of President Trump, asked to withdraw from the legal proceedings Tuesday — and one quit his job entirely — after the Justice Department signaled it planned to reduce their sentencing recommendation for the president’s friend.
Jonathan Kravis, one of the prosecutors, wrote in a court filing he had resigned as an assistant U.S. attorney, leaving government altogether. Three others — Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, Adam Jed and Michael Marando — asked a judge’s permission to leave the case.
Zelinsky, a former member of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team, also indicated in a filing he was quitting his special assignment to the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, though a spokeswoman said he will remain an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.
None provided a reason for their decisions.
The departures come just hours after a senior Justice Department official told reporters that the agency’s leadership had been “shocked” by the seven-to-nine-year penalty prosecutors asked a judge to impose on Stone and intended to ask for a lesser penalty.

Ian Bassin, who heads Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan organization that has litigated against Trump’s power grabs, tells me, “Jonathan Kravis and Aaron Zelinsky resigning is both a courageous and principled move on their part for which they deserve national praise, but it should also be a red alarm for the rest of us that the view from inside DOJ is that Trump and Barr are taking us to a dangerous place.” Bassin adds, “A favorite tool of autocrats is using law enforcement as a weapon against opponents and a shield to protect their friends. Unless we want autocracy in America, we need to heed this alarm. The rest of DOJ must speak out loudly, clearly and publicly against this assault on the rule of law.”

Aside from the Saturday night massacre, we have never seen multiple Justice Department lawyers resign to protest a presidential abuse of power.

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Just as Trump tried to engage a foreign government to announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and ordered up a probe of Hillary Clinton (which came to nothing), this is an egregious perversion of the rule of law. The president, like a tin-pot dictator, now uses the Justice Department to shield his criminal cronies, putting his finger on the scale in a way no other president has done in the modern era.

As he did in spinning the Mueller report and refusing to consider seriously the criminal implications of the whistleblower’s report, Attorney General William P. Barr has refused to defy the president or defend the reputation of his department. Former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance tweeted:

In the absence of a principled attorney general, the Justice Department has become an instrument to abuse power. What, if anything, might slow Trump down?

First, the judge in the Stone case, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, could reject the revised recommendation, implicitly or explicitly rebuking the Justice Department. Second, while unlikely to be productive, the House can subpoena Barr to testify and explain the reversal. (He previously refused to respond to a House subpoena and was held in contempt.) Third, the House could open impeachment hearings on Barr, something I suggested previously when he refused to comply with a lawful subpoena and allowed his lawyers to misrepresent the facts in the Census case (only to be rebuked by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.). Finally, a wave of resignations of Justice Department officials might alert the country to the dangers of Trump erasing the line between partisan politics and the administration of the law (though Trump and his supporters may be delighted to fill their spots with more political cronies).

Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah tells me, “This is absolutely unprecedented. DOJ never should have intervened in the Stone case and doing it after Trump’s Demand by tweet is the final blow to any pretense that DOJ is acting independently of Trump and politics which it has historically done by and large.” She adds, “The fact that career prosecutors are the ones taking a stand is alarming. The political appointees like US Attorneys should be insulating them from this. This is very dark and dangerous.”

Coming on the evening of the New Hampshire primary, the latest crisis should remind us of the stakes in 2020 and the necessity that Democrats nominate someone who can beat Trump and stop our slide into authoritarianism. It should also remind us that without the cowardice of Republican senators including Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and others, Trump would not be lighting a fire to the Justice Department and the Constitution. Voters must remember this come November.

The House impeached Trump, but it was a victory for alternative facts, Russian disinformation and Fox News, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh / AP/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Time for Democrats to get much tougher with William Barr

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Roger Stone’s conviction, and Trump’s ugly response, further demonstrate the president’s corruption

Morgan Pehme, Daniel DiMauro and Dylan Bank: Roger Stone believed morality was weakness. His downfall was loyalty to a friend.

Howard Fineman: Roger Stone should be a footnote in history. Instead, his life shows our descent to shamelessness.

Colbert I. King: It’s a good bet Trump pardons his felon allies. Here’s when that’s most likely.