President Trump is now openly flaunting his success in manipulating law enforcement for nakedly political and corrupt ends. With the Justice Department in turmoil over the decision by higher-ups to downscale a sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, Trump tweeted:

Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!

This is a straight-up celebration of the fact that in intervening for Stone — who was convicted of obstructing Congress and witness tampering in connection with investigations into Russian subversion of our election — Barr is doing the president’s political bidding.

In their original recommendation of a stiff sentence for Stone, prosecutors explicitly noted he’d obstructed an investigation designed to provide a full accounting of that attack on our political system.

But now Trump is openly declaring that in interfering, Barr is helping to delegitimize that investigation entirely. In short, Barr — who has tasked prosecutor John Durham with “reviewing” the investigation’s origins — is helping Trump make the Russian attack disappear.

In a decision made by Barr’s office, the Justice Department has now offered a supplemental sentencing memo for Stone that declares the earlier recommendation as “excessive and unwarranted.”

Shockingly, that came after Trump raged about the first recommendation. It will now fall to Judge Amy Jackson to sort through the competing claims.

One person who is exceptionally well positioned to shed light on all this is Michael R. Bromwich, who was the Justice Department inspector general from 1994 to 1999. In a viral tweet, Bromwich called on insiders to report any political manipulation they witness, a remarkable and alarming development.

I caught up with Bromwich and asked him to explain the true nature of the threat this moment poses. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent:

Trump has now publicly admitted his attorney general intervened in the case of his own longtime adviser for the express purpose of undermining DOJ’s own investigative conclusions about him. Your reaction?

Michael R. Bromwich:

It’s a continuation of the breakdown of the appropriate relationship between the White House and the Department of Justice. Trump doesn’t make communications secretly. The president tweets out his views for the attorney general and other high ranking Justice Department officials to see — and act upon.

Sargent:

Trump just did the same in the case of Stone. He tweeted about the sentencing recommendation, and lo and behold, DOJ acted.

Bromwich:

Exactly. With this president, there’s no need for secret communications.

Sargent:

After Watergate, there was a robust debate over what to do about the politicization of law enforcement. Having it under the executive branch subjects it to political accountability. Yet this exposes law enforcement to the possibility of political manipulation by presidents.

The norm of prosecutorial independence arose to deal with this problem, correct?

Bromwich:

Even before Watergate, people were wary of White House interference with the department. But Watergate crystallized an institutional norm that militated against any kind of interference and limited communications about criminal and national security matters.

The norm that has existed in recent times was that communications were generally limited to between the deputy attorney general and the White House Counsel’s Office.

Sargent:

How serious a break-glass moment is this?

Bromwich:

It’s extremely serious. The department had to understand that filing a supplemental memo would undermine the line prosecutors and make the department look terrible. Yet they were willing to do that, apparently because that’s what the president wanted.

Sargent:

Even if one believes the sentencing recommendation for Stone was too draconian, it’s still improper for higher-ups to interfere, correct? After all, the judge would evaluate it herself.

Bromwich:

It’s a demoralizer for any career prosecutor to realize that their recommendation can be completely reversed if it’s not politically correct.

The remedy is that it’s completely within Judge Jackson’s power to call a hearing and find out what the hell is going on. She now has two sentencing memos that conflict with each other. If I’m the judge, I want to know what explains this irregularity.

Sargent:

The first sentencing recommendation discusses how serious Stone’s crimes were in terms of the threat they posed to the integrity of our political system. In that context, we now have Trump explicitly declaring that the entire investigation into the attack on our system was illegitimate. He’s trying to erase that original attack.

Bromwich:

That’s exactly what he’s trying to do. He has utter disregard for our system. That is an existential threat to the institutions that most of us value, prize and have served.

Sargent:

What is it you want to see from DOJ employees?

Bromwich:

I can’t believe this is a solitary episode. The country and the Justice Department would be well served by people who know about these things to have the courage to resign, and explain their reasons for resigning, or report the misconduct they’ve witnessed to the inspector general.

Sargent:

What sort of misconduct might there be more of here? What’s a worst-case scenario?

Bromwich:

Opening investigations into political opponents. Closing down investigations into political allies. Those are the two most worrisome examples.

Sargent:

Is it reasonable to suspect Barr has entertained opening criminal investigations of Trump’s political rivals in some form?

Bromwich:

We know he has implemented Trump’s views of the Mueller investigation by opening the Durham investigation. The purpose of that seemingly is to undermine the legitimacy of the original Russia investigation that led to Mueller and criminal prosecutions.

Sargent:

This circles us back to Trump’s tweet, in which he seems to send out the message that the prosecutors should now be prosecuted.

Bromwich:

Yes. Any time anybody in government does something he doesn’t like, he wants to punish them by investigating and prosecuting them. That’s scary stuff.

Sargent:

Could House Democrats do more oversight that might encourage DOJ employees to come forward?

Bromwich:

They can hold oversight hearings and demand that the attorney general appear.

If people know the House is aggressively conducting oversight and have an appetite to hear complaints, they then have a clear avenue through which to report what they’ve seen.

Sargent:

Including confidentially.

Bromwich:

Yes, absolutely.

Sargent:

Even if they do subpoena Barr and his deputies, there’s a decent chance he won’t show up. Then what?

Bromwich:

Then they can hold him in contempt. Is it a meaningful sanction? No. But it has value anyway. It underscores the point that this Department of Justice appears not to respect a coequal branch of government.

Sargent:

And that could snowball the phenomenon in which people come forward?

Bromwich:

That’s right.

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