In a frantic exercise in damage control, Barr gave a remarkable interview to ABC News responding to the furor over the Justice Department’s decision to scale down its sentencing recommendation for Stone, President Trump’s longtime confidant.
Barr called on Trump to stop tweeting pressure on law enforcement, vowing not to be “bullied or influenced by anybody.” This is driving headlines.
But Barr also offered a newly detailed chronology of events leading up to the downgraded recommendation for Stone, which came after career prosecutors recommended a stiffer sentence. Barr denied doing Trump’s bidding, even though this came hours after Trump raged about the initial recommendation.
Yet this new chronology from Barr raises more questions than it answers.
Numerous House Democrats are now advocating for the House to solicit testimony from the four prosecutors involved in the initial recommendation for Stone, aides tell me. Four have withdrawn from the case, and one quit his job.
Two senior Democratic aides told me many House members want to see these hearings well in advance of Barr’s planned testimony to the Judiciary Committee on March 31.
“Time is of the essence, since this scandal gets worse by the hour,” one senior aide to a member of Judiciary told me, adding that hearing from the four prosecutors could help create “a record of what happened before Barr gets to set the narrative.”
Another senior House aide told me there’s a “pretty widespread sentiment” among members that the four prosecutors must be heard from, “to get the full story of what’s happening under Barr’s tenure.”
“Career prosecutors are quitting, and Congress needs to understand why,” this aide continued, adding that there’s an expectation that members might soon grow more public in this demand.
It’s not clear which committee might do this — it could be Judiciary or Oversight, which also played a role in the impeachment inquiry. It’s also not clear how open House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is to it. A senior Democratic leadership aide told me this has been discussed "at the staff level,” but no decisions have been made.
Barr’s new chronology
On ABC, Barr offered his first detailed account of the mess involving Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering to obstruct investigations into Russian subversion of the 2016 election for Trump.
Barr recounted that a top deputy — apparently Timothy Shea, a longtime Barr adviser just installed as U.S. attorney in Washington — had grown concerned that sentencing guidelines would dictate too draconian a punishment.
Stone’s prosecutors wanted to recommend the stiff sentence. But Barr wanted the judge to make the determination without any affirmative department recommendation.
Barr claimed he thought this was the approach all agreed would be followed, but that the prosecutors submitted the stiffer recommendation, which “surprised” him. He claimed he then started the process to undo this — before Trump tweeted his rage at 2 a.m. the next day.
Later the next morning, Barr was already preparing to implement the change when he was notified about Trump’s tweet — meaning Trump’s rage didn’t influence him. Barr claimed Trump’s tweet boxed him in — reversing the sentence would now smack of carrying out Trump’s bidding.
This account is actually very damning. The most charitable interpretation here is that Trump has openly sought to corrupt the process. By Barr’s own implicit admission, Trump’s rage could only be construed as an effort to manipulate law enforcement — after all, this is precisely what, by Barr’s account, boxed him in.
It’s no accident that Trump immediately responded by reiterating the absolute right to continue manipulating law enforcement in any way he sees fit:
“The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2020
It’s true that Barr said this, but it’s meaningless, since Trump regularly demands prosecutions of his political opponents in public. What’s more, Trump has already had success corrupting the process. Barr has done Trump’s bidding on many other fronts, by misleading the public about the special counsel’s findings, working to discredit the Russia investigation and opening a special channel for information on the Bidens.
Meanwhile, an alarming new Post report details that Trump regularly rages about the department’s failure to prosecute political opponents such as Hillary Clinton and former FBI director James B. Comey.
Trump has now explicitly asserted the authority to directly command Barr to do this in the future.
Beyond all this, Barr’s account raises many new questions. What had those prosecutors actually agreed to on Stone? Why did Barr conclude the initial sentencing was too draconian? Given his own pious concern about appearances, why did he try to reverse the prosecutors’ recommendation in a case involving Trump’s close adviser that Trump himself obsessed over for months?
All these questions open the door for Congress to hear from the prosecutors themselves. Ideally, they can tell their side of the story leading up to this fiasco, recount why they thought the stiffer sentence was appropriate and describe the degree to which Barr’s actions have politicized the internal climate.
The bigger story here is this: Now that impeachment is behind us, there’s no aggressive, centralized process marshaling powerful investigative resources and commanding intense national media attention. So House Democrats will simply have to come up with a creative new war footing to cope with the emboldened and unchecked president’s lawlessness.
This is one place to start. But a lot more will be required.