“I THINK it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Attorney General William P. Barr said to ABC News, calling out President Trump for making it “impossible” to run a Justice Department with credibility.
Also welcome, though overdue, was Friday’s news that Mr. Barr’s Justice Department has finally dropped its foundering case against former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, who opened the Russia investigation into Mr. Trump. The president has frequently targeted Mr. McCabe. But the legal case against him was weak and tainted by precisely the sort of presidential pressure Mr. Barr complained about in his interview.
Still, if Mr. Barr is a victim of presidential misbehavior, he is also too often — including in the Stone case — an accomplice. Mr. Barr misinformed the public about the contents of the Russia report of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, giving the impression that Mr. Trump had been cleared when he had not been. He has accused the government of “spying” on the Trump campaign. Mr. Barr’s initiation of an investigation of the Russia investigation — and his personal intervention in the probe — raise further questions about his commitment to isolating the Justice Department from political influence. So did a highly partisan speech he gave to the Federalist Society, in which he attacked “the other side” — i.e., Democrats — for their opposition to Mr. Trump.
Then there is this week’s Stone fiasco. According to the attorney general’s description of events, the U.S. attorney overseeing the Stone case consulted with Mr. Barr about what punishment the department would recommend. The attorney general, who rarely gets involved in such decisions, should have known to steer clear of such a sensitive case and leave it to the professionals. Once line prosecutors filed a tough sentencing recommendation, in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines, it behooved Mr. Barr even more to avoid any appearance of political interference, even if he personally favored a lighter sentence. Instead, Mr. Barr ordered the department to make a remarkable about-face and file a new sentencing recommendation.
The attorney general no doubt has the power to order such a move. But it was not wise.
Mr. Barr insisted to ABC that the people who know him understand that he makes decisions on the merits. “But most people in the country don’t have that kind of exposure, and I think I can understand why people are concerned that it could influence the work of the department,” he said. That is exactly why, whatever his intentions, he — like Mr. Trump — should be more careful.