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Opinion William Barr’s outburst means little if he does not actually stand up to Trump

Attorney General William P. Barr with President Trump outside the White House in July. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The Post reports:

Attorney General William P. Barr pushed back hard Thursday against President Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department, saying “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” a remarkable public rebuke that could jeopardize his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said in an interview with ABC News, adding that such statements “about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending here, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors and the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”

It is far from clear what this means, since the Justice Department apparently did knuckle under to President Trump by reducing the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone and showing no sign it will revert to the original sentencing memo.

Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah is unimpressed. “[William] Barr is covering. He’s saying that Trump tweeting explicitly is making it hard for him to do his job and clearly, based on his actions, he views his job as giving favorable treatment to someone who Trump wants to protect both because he’s his friend and because he could provide more damaging information about the Trump-Russia connection if he were truthful.” Rocah continues, “At the end of the day, Barr overruled career prosecutors within 24 hours on a sentence that they recommended within the U.S. sentencing guidelines. There was no non-political reason to do that.”

Ian Bassin, executive director of the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy, observes: “The DOJ doesn’t run around the country asking courts to issue sentences far less than the guidelines. And they certainly don’t do it in cases where not only didn’t the defendant cooperate, but he was obstructive and threatened witnesses.” Nevertheless, Bassin notes that “Barr wants us to believe he did that here and the fact that Stone was the president’s top adviser had nothing to do with it? He must think we’re all stupid.” He concludes, “The truth is in Trump’s world, the hit man doesn’t need to be told explicitly what to do by the Don, but he always understands the order.”

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Most likely, Barr did not like the public beating he was getting, the suggestions of impeachment, the howls of protest from within the Justice Department and the scorn of his profession. (The good news is that, unlike his boss, he can be shamed.) However, if he complains but continues to do Trump’s bidding and puts up with Trump’s assault on the rule of law, his protests are just hot air. Former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller observes, “It doesn’t mean anything. He is still pushing for lighter sentences for Stone and [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn than career prosecutors wanted, and still pushing for investigations of the president’s perceived political enemies — James Comey, James Clapper and John Brennan. He just doesn’t want Trump to tweet about it and give the game away to the world.”

Let’s take stock. The president has now assailed the judge, the juror forewoman and his own prosecutors in the Stone case, praising his flunky attorney general for having swept in to lighten Stone’s sentence recommendation in contravention of the filings of four prosecutors — who, unlike Barr, resigned from the case rather than knuckle under to an unleashed and corrupt president.

Like a mafia boss in a shakedown operation, Trump also seemed to threaten the state of New York by continuing to deny Global Entry applicants if the state does not stop suing the administration:

The House impeachment managers (and many of us outside the trial) warned that if Trump could strong-arm an ally for personal favors, he could lean on a state or locality if they did not jump when he barked. That hypothetical has now come to pass.

Trump is seeking to intimidate, to bully the administration of justice in blatantly abusing his power. He is seeking to strip states of their legal rights. He is vividly acting out his critics’ portrayal of him as a budding autocrat, now unrestrained and ready to stock the government with previously disgraced cronies. And Republicans remain silent.

It is not as though the Republican-controlled Senate is powerless. On the same day Trump was torching the courts and the Constitution, the Senate voted to restrain Trump’s use of military force except in cases of self-defense against Iran. The Post reports:

Eight Republicans joined all Democrats in voting 55 to 45 for the measure, despite sharp warnings from Trump that challenging his war powers would “show weakness” and “sends a very bad signal” to Tehran. Trump will almost certainly veto the measure once it passes the House, and neither chamber of Congress has the votes to override that veto, lawmakers say.

It is extraordinary when eight members of Trump’s own party do not trust him to act within his constitutional limits and in the best interest of the country when it comes to foreign affairs (where the executive branch’s powers are strongest). Imagine if such a bipartisan vote — not enough to remove him, but enough to smack him decisively — had been administered during impeachment. Do we really think he would now be playing the part of Mad King George issuing his imperial decrees? Do we really think he would have felt emboldened to attack a federal court judge and a juror forewoman had a significant group of Republicans stood up to him?

Perhaps even then he would not have been deterred, but in failing to show any spine, Republicans (save Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah) certainly gave him the green light to do anything he pleases — and what pleases him is to seek revenge.

During his first year as President Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr has at times used the same language as Trump on the Russia probe and impeachment. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

During her weekly news conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted Barr. “AG Barr has deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing the DOJ’s sentencing recommendation, the act of interference in Trump’s retribution against [the] lead attorney in the Stone case,” she said. Although she said Barr was a "sad disappointment to our country,” she nevertheless defended not attempting to impeach Barr, arguing that Congress should not "spend all of our time going after every lie the administration henchmen make to the Congress of the United States.”

Barr’s conduct since impeachment, in facilitating Trump’s reign of revenge, is far more serious than “just” lying to Congress. He threatens — at his boss’s behest — to undermine the rule of law, to spare the guilty and indict the innocent. Impeachment is not an option that should be taken off the table.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: America, the banana republic

The Post’s View: The degradation of William Barr’s Justice Department is nearly complete

Greg Sargent: John Kelly just validated the argument that got Trump impeached

Chuck Rosenberg: This is a revolting assault on the fragile rule of law