In Washington, cynicism often passes for wisdom, and there was plenty of the former going around after Attorney General William Barr publicly rebuked the president for poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Cynics can never be satisfied, but we take Barr’s comments as not only fully justified but most likely sincere.
The background: On Monday, federal prosecutors asked a judge to impose a sentence of about seven to nine years on Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s who was convicted of obstruction, witness tampering and false statements during the congressional investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Early Tuesday, Trump took to Twitter to denounce the recommendation as “horrible and very unfair.” That same day, the Justice Department said it would withdraw it and ask for a lighter sentence.
That step prompted four career prosecutors to quit the case — and one to resign his post. It also unleashed a storm of criticism on Barr, who was accused of letting the president dictate to the department on a legal matter where Trump has an interest at stake. The attorney general said he had made the decision before Trump complained. But the optics were, at the least, awkward.
So on Thursday, Barr did something that Cabinet officials rarely do: He told the president to back off. “It’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” he told ABC News. “Public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
It was the right thing to say, and the right time to say it. The public needs to know that the people charged with enforcing federal law do so in a fair and impartial way, without any political agenda.
Trump has never grasped that the attorney general’s proper role requires a measure of independence from the White House. The president’s lack of respect for legal tradition in these matters is potentially harmful to the country. Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, lost the job largely because Trump never forgave him for (rightly) recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Barr’s remarks were a signal that the president shouldn’t overstep. It was also a message to federal prosecutors and other department employees that he will resist such interference.
Those who had previously criticized Barr for being too supportive of the president found new reason to criticize him. Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney, said Barr is “shrewd, deliberate, smart, calculating, careful and full of it.” But congressional Republicans welcomed Barr’s comments.
On Friday, Trump tweeted (yes, he was tweeting again) that even though he hasn’t interfered in such matters, he has “the legal right to do so.” He didn’t acknowledge that if he tried, he might have to find a new attorney general.
Anyone scrutinizing Barr’s motives soon had more evidence of his sincerity. On Friday, lawyers for former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a frequent target of Trump’s ire, got word from Justice that he won’t face charges over his alleged lying about a media leak. It was a decision that was bound to infuriate the president. So it’s safe to say the timing of Barr’s remarks to ABC was not random.
As attorney general, Barr has a difficult task: To preserve the substance and appearance of impartial law enforcement while retaining the trust of a mercurial president. Every day Barr meets that obligation is a good one for the nation.
— Chicago Tribune