Nothing to see here: Trump takes over the Justice Department | Editorial

Posted Feb 12, 2020

The powers of the Justice Department are among the gravest our government has, to strip people of their liberty. And now, apparently, they are subject to the stormy impulses of one man: The Mad King.

President Trump is interfering with a purpose that is nakedly political and getting what he wants, thanks to his loyal henchman, Attorney General William Barr. In an extraordinary reversal, the DOJ just downgraded its recommended prison sentence for Trump’s buddy, Roger Stone, hours after the president fumed about it on Twitter.

“This is a huge deal,” Elie Honig, a former New Jersey and federal prosecutor, told us on Wednesday. “There’s a long-standing norm that has been observed, going back many decades in both political parties, that you just do not mess with DOJ.”

After all, if the president can weaponize the Justice Department to either protect his allies or go after his enemies, we are going down a dangerous road. “Direct political interference in our justice system is a hallmark of a banana republic,” as Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th Dist.) says.

The people who value rule of law and the integrity of the DOJ aren’t going to let this go unchallenged, so Barr is being called in to testify by the House Judiciary Committee and chairman Jerry Nadler.

Recall that Stone got convicted of lying to Congress in the Russia probe, in order protect the Trump campaign. Poor, old Stone, whose prosecution has been called “horrible and very unfair” by Trump, also threatened a witness in a federal case with violence – "Prepare to die”– and in a final touch, vowed to kidnap the man’s therapy dog. Show a little compassion, folks.

The seven- to nine-year prison sentence that the line prosecutors had recommended for him was squarely within the appropriate guidelines. To have the Justice Department publicly undermine it after an angry Trump tweet was incredibly demoralizing. Four career prosecutors quickly quit the case in protest.

But even more importantly, it violates a key tenet of our democracy, that prosecutors are not supposed to be political. Remember when Attorney General Loretta Lynch recused herself from the Clinton email probe after a chat on the tarmac with Bill Clinton?

Barr’s DOJ claimed the timing was all just “an inconvenient coincidence,” caused by a “breakdown” in communication, and that Trump’s opinion played no role.

Except then, Trump tweeted again – and celebrated Barr’s interference: “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not even have been brought.”

Even if you believe that Trump had no actual influence, much like you believed Sen. Susan Collins when she said he’d learned his lesson from the impeachment trial, the mere appearance that this is politically motivated hurts the integrity of the DOJ.

Just last month, prosecutors also reportedly went back to the court to reverse their recommendation that another of Trump’s pitiable, lying pals, Michael Flynn, deserved jail time. We are noticing a pattern here.

No one can stop Trump, aside from judges like the one in Stone’s case. She could ignore the new Justice Department request and sentence him as she sees fit – which is likely why Trump is now attacking her on Twitter.

And in the end, Trump could simply pardon Stone. But there would likely be a political outcry, Honig says: “He’s trying to soften that blow, by having the Justice Department do it for him.”

People like to make fun of New Jersey for being corrupt. But cash stuffed in coffee cups and traffic chaos in Fort Lee is nothing like having the DOJ do your dirty work.

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