The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tweets or no, William Barr made the wrong call on Roger Stone

Attorney General William P. Barr listens as President Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 26, 2019.
Attorney General William P. Barr listens as President Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Nov. 26, 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“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.

Mr. Barr’s frustration is understandable, and it’s good that he spoke out. Presidential pressure can put him in a no-win position. If he makes decisions that seem favorable to the president, as he did this week in ordering a lighter sentencing recommendation for Trump crony Roger Stone, he seems to be politicizing the department. If he crosses the president, he may get slammed for giving in to Mr. Trump’s critics. The president’s attacks on U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is presiding over the Stone case, may have the same counterproductive effect.

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.

Attorney General William P. Barr responded to comments made by President Trump ridiculing the Justice Department in an interview with ABC News on Feb. 13. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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.

Read more:

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

Sally Yates: Trump thinks the Justice Department is his personal grudge squad

Greg Sargent: Barr’s ABC News interview is deeply damning. Here’s what must come next.

Radley Balko: The Roger Stone case highlights our pernicious system of tiered justice

The Post’s View: Trump used his office for political gain. Now Barr appears to be using his authority to help him.