Cynical, even by the standards of a cynical era. Wouldn’t surprise me if he and Trump gamed out this message together in order to lower the political heat on the Stone mess. Watch, then read on.
“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody….whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president," Bill Barr tells @ABC News.
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 13, 2020
The headlines will be “BARR REBUKES TRUMP FOR MEDDLING IN STONE CASE,” which is what Barr intended. The headlines should be “BARR TAKES FALL FOR CHANGE TO STONE’S RECOMMENDED SENTENCE, INSISTS IT WAS ON THE MERITS.” To refresh your memory, not one but two different Trump cronies — Mike Flynn and Roger Stone — caught a break recently from the DOJ when the Department took the highly unusual step of amending its sentence recommendations in their cases to ask for leniency. Coincidentally, those amended recommendations came after the regular U.S. Attorney in charge, Jessie Liu, was removed from her post by Barr and replaced by one of his close advisors, Timothy Shea. Liu had been nominated to a position in the Treasury Department and was awaiting her confirmation hearing but could have continued to serve as U.S. Attorney until she took that position. For some reason, Barr wanted her out sooner.
On Tuesday night news broke that Liu’s Treasury nomination had been withdrawn by Trump, two days before she was set to face questions from the Senate. Why? “The problem wasn’t that she necessarily did anything wrong” as U.S. Attorney, CNN reported, citing a source, “but that she didn’t do more to get involved in those cases” like Flynn’s and Stone’s and Andrew McCabe’s — Trump’s political friends and enemies, in other words. It appears that Barr swapped in someone who would get more “involved” on the AG’s behalf. Which smells a lot like Rudy Giuliani deciding that Marie Yovanovitch had to go because she would have been an obstacle to the scheme he wanted to run on the Ukrainian government.
Liu finally gave up on the Treasury nomination this morning, by the way withdrawing from consideration. I’m guessing she won’t get her old job back in the D.C. office.
In other words, to all appearances, Barr is playing political “fixer” with the D.C. office behind the scenes, corruptly cutting special breaks for Trump’s buddies and probably preparing to crack down hard on his antagonists like McCabe. Trump being Trump, instead of just letting Barr go about his business quietly and preserve some degree of plausible deniability that that’s what’s going on, he had to open his big mouth about it:
Barr wants to be able to present the otherwise unheard-of sentencing revisions for Flynn and Stone as something he did on the merits, not something done to reward the president’s political toadies. Trump made that charade harder for him to maintain, which brought us to today’s ABC interview. This analogy made me laugh:
This Barr interview is DeNiro in Goodfellas yelling at Johnny Roastbeef for buying his wife a Cadillac after the Lufthansa heist.
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) February 13, 2020
When you’ve just done something shady, you don’t advertise it. You put your phone away and lay off Twitter for awhile.
Still, it’s unusual to find Trump being rebuked publicly for tweeting by a deputy, even if they’re coordinating on it and it’s to their mutual benefit politically. I think Barr felt obliged to say something because even otherwise Trump-friendly lawyers like Jack Goldsmith and Andy McCarthy were grossed out by the optics of DOJ leaders racing in to save Roger Stone from a stiff sentence at the last second, over the objections of their own prosecutors. The papers are full of stories today quoting former U.S. Attorneys lambasting the Department for having humiliated their own personnel in the name of protecting the president’s pals, both of whom have already been convicted. (Stone by a jury.) “Prosecutors across the United States, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said this week that they had already been wary of working on any case that might catch Mr. Trump’s attention and that the Stone episode only deepened their concern,” said the Times today. “They also said that they were worried that Mr. Barr might not support them in politically charged cases.” Barr may have been facing more resignations internally after the four prosecutors on the Stone case all withdrew in protest. He had to say something that would restore some plausibility to his and Trump’s denial that politics was being played in the Stone matter.
Goldsmith remembered how dubious it was in 2016 when Obama spoke up to say he was confident that Hillary Clinton had never endangered national security with her email practices even while the investigation was ongoing. That was bad, Goldsmith said, but what Trump did in commenting this week — and in previous cases, as this is part of a pattern — was much, much worse. Barr’s part of the pattern too:
As for Attorney General Barr: He has contributed to the perception of politicized law enforcement by giving interviews and speeches that appear to prejudge the investigation of the origins of the 2016 FBI investigation into President Trump, and that, more broadly, indicate that he sees many law enforcement and law-compliance issues through a left-right political lens. But now he has acted in a manner consistent with the president’s overt and highly political wishes to minimize Stone’s sentence, and the president has praised him for it. Whatever the reality of Barr’s decison-making process, it definitely appears that he bowed to the president’s politically self-serving wishes.
Barr has a large conception of the president’s power to control investigations. But he is also, I still believe, a man of principle who loves the Justice Department. For his sake, and for the department’s, he needs to make the president stop barking politicized commands to the Department. Or he needs to stop acting in ways consistent with those orders and provocations. Or, if he cannot do one of those two things, he should quit.
In other words, whether or not Barr’s motives were corrupt in demanding leniency for Stone, they looked corrupt. Barr’s formal on-camera scolding of the president this afternoon is essentially a response to that point: Yes, okay, my motives might have looked corrupt but they weren’t corrupt. Until I see a wave of revised DOJ sentencing recommendations supporting leniency for Joe Schmo defendants instead of the president’s golf buddies, I don’t buy it. But maybe this fig leaf of good intentions will avert more resignations at the Department. Barr can’t do everything himself there, after all. He needs subordinates to at least be able to pretend their agency isn’t corrupt and that it’s doing meaningful work on cases involving the president’s friends before Trump inevitably hands Flynn and Stone their “get out of jail free because you’re my boys” cards.
Now we wait to see whether Trump throws a Twitter fit over Barr’s remarks or if he uncharacteristically declines comment. A presidential tantrum won’t prove that Barr was sincere in the ABC interview but it’d be circumstantial evidence of it, just as presidential silence would be circumstantial evidence that this really is kabuki. Meanwhile, I’m interested in hearing from Jessie Liu about all this. Now that she’s not in government, presumably the executive-privilege grounds to prevent her from testifying are a little weaker than they were yesterday. Given how she’s been treated and how humiliated her former D.C. deputies have been by all this, she may even be eager to talk.
Update: We’ll see. But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it’s true.
Trump is not upset with Barr after his comments to ABC, I’m told.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) February 13, 2020