The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New leadership should reconnect the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. with its community

Attorney General William Barr, left, and Justin Herdman, then U.S. attorney in Cleveland, in 2019.
Attorney General William Barr, left, and Justin Herdman, then U.S. attorney in Cleveland, in 2019. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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“HEAD-TURNING.” That is what D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called the churn in leadership at the U.S. attorney’s office in the District. Other words — like stomach-turning — also come to mind to describe the degradation of this critical office, which both prosecutes federal crimes and serves as local prosecutor for the city. Not only has the once-respected office been politicized in service to the interests of President Trump, but there also seems to be an increasing disconnect with the local community it is supposed to serve.

Mr. Trump’s announcement Monday that he plans to nominate Justin Herdman, the U.S. attorney in Cleveland, to take over the role of top prosecutor currently held by Timothy Shea caps a tumultuous time for the country’s largest U.S. attorney’s office — and one of its most powerful.

First came the departure in January of Jessie K. Liu, who took office as U.S. attorney in September 2017 but resigned to take a job with the Treasury Department before Mr. Trump withdrew her nomination in pique over her handling of cases she inherited from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Shea, handpicked to serve on an interim basis by Attorney General William P. Barr, got his marching orders: He played a major role in scaling back the sentencing recommendation for Trump crony Roger Stone, and he moved to drop charges against another Trump ally, Michael Flynn. With that work finished — and any chance of Mr. Shea continuing in office seemingly and thankfully doomed by the blowback — Michael R. Sherwin, another Barr favorite, was selected to serve until Mr. Herdman obtains Senate confirmation and takes over permanently.

Under the circumstances, Mr. Sherwin and Mr. Herdman will have a special responsibility to prove that their commitment is to justice and professionalism, not personal loyalty to Mr. Barr or Mr. Trump. The key here is addressing the criminal-justice needs of the people of the District of Columbia. Local officials and residents have long felt that their enforcement issues took a back seat to the flashier national and international cases handled by federal prosecutors, but those feelings have intensified during Mr. Trump’s administration. Why aren’t hate crimes being prosecuted? Why is it hard to get signoff on homicide warrants? Why has an investigation involving former D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) languished with no resolution for Mr. Evans or the public?

Unlike local prosecutors in other jurisdictions, the U.S. attorney in Washington doesn’t have to account to the local community for the office’s actions, as Ms. Liu demonstrated when she refused to attend a D.C. Council hearing about hate-crime prosecutions. A Senate confirmation hearing could provide some answers about whether the new leadership will change that. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should make one a priority.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Washington needs a new U.S. attorney

Jennifer Rubin: William Barr and his henchmen must be held accountable

Paul Waldman: William Barr’s corrupt decision points to Trump’s moral rot of our institutions

Jonathan Kravis: I left the Justice Department after it made a disastrous mistake. It just happened again.

David Von Drehle: In the midst of a pandemic, Trump is obsessing over Michael Flynn