The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barr claimed there is ‘no such pattern’ of him pushing Trump’s interests. Then, almost immediately, the pattern was reinforced.

A former prosecutor in the Roger Stone trial, Aaron Zelinsky, on June 24 said the Department of Justice pressured him to give Stone “a break” on his sentencing. (Video: Reuters)

In a new interview released Thursday evening, Attorney General William P. Barr professes to be perplexed about why his tenure has been so controversial. He blames “conspiracy theorists” and says “there is no such pattern” of his advancing President Trump’s personal interests. “I would say that that is a media narrative that has been adhered to, where things that happen all the time in the Department of Justice are misrepresented to the public and cast as somehow suspicious,” he tells NPR.

Shortly after those comments were published, the New York Times reported that Barr had intervened in yet another case involving a Trump ally, Michael Cohen. Cohen makes a trio, alongside Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.

Barr’s claims that there is no pro-Trump “pattern” and that his maneuverings are business as usual are undermined not just by the very clear pattern that exists — and which the Cohen news reinforces — but also by the responses of fellow legal officials.

In the same interview, he suggests he is flummoxed that the removal this weekend of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who has investigated Trump allies including Cohen, would cause an uproar. “I felt this was actually a good time to do it, because I was not aware of anything that should, in reality, give rise to that,” Barr says.

That’s exceedingly Pollyannaish, and Barr has to know that. It’s been known that Berman investigated Trump’s allies, Barr has been criticized for aiding those allies, and he doesn’t understand why this might raise eyebrows?

And whatever one thinks of the legal underpinnings of Barr’s decisions, the pattern is clear and getting clearer. It’s also hardly just the media that have pointed in that direction; it’s also the likes of Berman.

Here’s a rundown of what Barr has done, and how others around him have reinforced the unusual nature of it:

  • He offered a misleading preview of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on the Russia investigation, which Mueller himself raised concerns about in an extraordinary letter.
  • Barr intervened to get a lower sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump adviser Stone, which led to the withdrawal of all four prosecutors on the case. Two of them have spoken out publicly now, including Aaron Zelinsky, who testified under oath this week that he was told the decision was made because the acting U.S. attorney was “afraid of the president.” Zelinsky added that it was the only example of political meddling he had encountered in his entire prosecutorial career.
  • Barr’s Justice Department moved to drop its prosecution of Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, even though he pleaded guilty. The judge in the case, Emmet G. Sullivan, has cast the situation as “unprecedented.”
  • Barr and the U.S. attorney investigating the origins of the Russia investigation issued extraordinary statements disputing an inspector general’s finding that the investigation was properly predicated. It’s very rare for Justice Department officials to comment on ongoing probes, and the attorney, John Durham, in particular almost never comments publicly.
  • Barr has said the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign — a loaded characterization that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has rejected.
  • This past weekend, he launched a botched effort to remove Berman. Berman eventually stepped aside after Trump was forced to fire him. But before that, Berman issued his own extraordinary statement disputing Barr’s claim that he had stepped down. Berman also conspicuously vowed to ensure that “important cases continue unimpeded” — which many read as a allusion to investigations involving Trump and his allies, possibly including Rudolph W. Giuliani.

That last situation is the one we’re learning more about today. The Times reports that, after being installed as attorney general in February 2019, Barr questioned prosecutors’ campaign-finance case against Cohen, in which Cohen had, like Flynn, already pleaded guilty. Cohen also, importantly, fingered Trump as authorizing his moves to pay off women who accused Trump of affairs. It appears to have been an early precursor to what we said this past weekend:

But Mr. Barr spent weeks in the spring of 2019 questioning the prosecutors over their decision to charge Mr. Cohen with violating campaign finance laws, according to people briefed on the matter.
At one point during the discussions, Mr. Barr instructed Justice Department officials in Washington to draft a memo outlining legal arguments that could have raised questions about Mr. Cohen’s conviction and undercut similar prosecutions in the future, according to the people briefed on the matter.
The prosecutors in New York resisted the effort, the people said, and a Justice Department official said Mr. Barr did not instruct them to withdraw the case.

That sure sounds a lot like what would later happen with Flynn. And it certainly reinforces that pattern. It’s possible to think these moves were legally sound, but it would seem a remarkable coincidence that Barr has been so involved in three Justice Department cases that just so happen to involve Trump’s allies.

As important as what Barr has done, though, is how many times those actions have drawn others to reinforce the extraordinary nature of them. Barr claims that these are “things that happen all the time in the Department of Justice,” but the actions and comments of Mueller, Zelinsky, Zelinsky’s fellow prosecutor Jonathan Kravis, Sullivan, Wray and now Berman paint a very different picture.