Barr accused of politicizing Justice Department
Attorney General William Barr faced new allegations this week that he’d turned the Justice Department into a partisan weapon, after he fired the Manhattan U.S. attorney who was investigating President Trump’s inner circle and a career prosecutor testified that Barr has pressured investigators to go easy on Trump’s allies. The backlash began after Barr announced at 10 p.m. Friday that Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the powerful Southern District of New York, was “stepping down.” Berman, who is investigating Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and has indicted two of Giuliani’s Ukrainian business partners, sparked a public standoff when he said he had “no intention of resigning.” Barr then said Trump had fired him, and Berman agreed to leave when it became clear he’d be replaced by his deputy, Audrey Strauss, a career prosecutor. A former law firm colleague of Giuliani’s who donated to Trump in 2016, Berman has drawn Trump’s wrath since his office successfully prosecuted the president’s fixer, Michael Cohen, in 2018.
This week, two Justice Department officials testified on Capitol Hill that Barr had exerted improper influence over cases. Aaron Zelinsky, a former member of Robert Mueller’s team who prosecuted Trump adviser Roger Stone for obstruction of justice, said he withdrew from that case in February after Barr forced prosecutors to “distort” evidence to help Stone get a lighter sentence. John Elias, an official in the DOJ’s antitrust division, testified that the socially conservative Barr ordered antitrust probes of marijuana company mergers only because he didn’t “like the nature” of their business. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said his committee “may very well” pursue Barr’s impeachment.
What the editorials said
Barr acts astonished when anyone accuses him of political hackery, said The Washington Post. It’s “obviously false,” he says, that Berman was pushed out so that Barr could meddle in the Southern District’s investigations. Yet this is the same attorney general who placed a loyalist in the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., allowing Barr to scuttle prosecutions of “the president’s lawbreaking friends,” and who directed the “violent clearing of peaceful protesters” outside the White House in early June. With Barr, it’s best to assume the worst.
Berman is no “political martyr,” said The Wall Street Journal. Trump has “every right to fire Berman as an inferior officer in the executive branch.” And Barr was negotiating with Berman over a transfer to another senior role when it was announced he was “stepping down,” which is standard DOJ language. “If this is a cover-up, it’s the most inept in history.”
What the columnists said
Why was Berman suddenly removed? asked Benjamin Wittes in LawfareBlog.com. “The most innocent explanation” is that Trump recently golfed with Securities and Exchange Commission head Jay Clayton, who expressed an interest in Berman’s job. There are “more-menacing possibilities.” Trump may have wanted to quash the Giuliani probe or an investigation into Deutsche Bank’s dealings with the Trump Organization. Or maybe this was retaliation for the indictment by Berman’s office of a Turkish government–owned bank that violated sanctions on Iran. Former national security adviser John Bolton claims in his new book “that Trump personally promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would intervene in the case.”
Don’t twist a “personnel move into a scandal,” said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. Berman was appointed on an interim basis in 2018 and has been “keeping the seat warm” until Trump named his replacement. In recent weeks he’d irritated the administration, refusing to sign a letter from the DOJ chiding New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for restricting people’s ability to worship amid the pandemic while letting thousands protest in the street. Berman paid the price for “thwarting administration policy.”
Barr’s desperately heavy-handed tactics are backfiring, said George Packer in TheAtlantic.com. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made it clear he wouldn’t let a replacement U.S. attorney be rammed through his Judiciary Committee. So now Trump and Barr are stuck with Strauss, a straight shooter “versed in the cases that threaten Trump.” Berman’s defiance, and Graham’s, might be “part of a larger collapse that will build its own momentum. Failure is a contagion.” ■