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The corruption and politicization of the Department of Justice under William Barr is now complete. It will take a generation to reestablish its credibility and independence.
Under Barr, the Department of Justice has two objectives: to suppress any investigation of President Trump and his associates, and to aggressively pursue investigations of his political rivals. The attorney general has turned the Justice Department into a law firm with one client: Donald Trump. Barr doesn’t even hide his intentions any longer.
In May, after Barr moved to drop the charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser — even after Flynn had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — Barr defended his actions in the case by saying that “history is written by the winners.” That is the kind of statement that might be expected from an amoral bureaucrat in a police state rather than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.
Barr’s latest move to protect Trump came over the weekend, when he fired Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. One of the nation’s most important federal prosecutors, Berman has been conducting a series of sensitive investigations into Trump associates. Berman prosecuted Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, and has prosecuted two associates of Rudy Giuliani, who is another Trump personal lawyer. Berman also brought charges against a Turkish state-owned bank in a case in which Turkey’s autocratic president has personally sought Trump’s help.
Barr clearly thought that Berman was causing too much trouble for Trump — so he decided to fire Berman and install Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Jay Clayton, a Trump golfing buddy with no experience as a prosecutor, into the position. Barr tried to push Berman out late Friday night, no doubt thinking that a nation distracted by a pandemic and protests would barely notice.
But Berman refused to go quietly. He quickly saw Barr’s move for exactly what it was: a raw attempt to shut down ongoing Trump-related investigations. Berman announced that he was refusing to leave, leading to a dramatic standoff.
While the standoff continued into Saturday, Barr’s actions sparked outrage among legal professionals and political leaders. Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who is the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, went to the heart of the matter in a brief statement. “Bill Barr was hired to personally protect the President,” Warner said.
As the standoff moved into Saturday, Barr finally blinked. He fired Berman, but instead of trying to put Trump’s friend Clayton in the job, Barr said that Berman’s own deputy, Audrey Strauss, would take over as acting U.S. attorney. That move placated Berman, who then agreed to leave.
Barr probably was forced to compromise when he realized that he lacked the critical support of Senate Republicans. They can read the polls showing Trump’s support is cratering, and key leaders signaled that they were unwilling to go along with Barr’s latest move to protect Trump from the rule of law.
The most important statement came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who said Saturday that he would follow long-standing Senate tradition and only move to confirm a new U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York if the two New York senators approved of the nominee. That meant that Graham was handing a veto over Barr’s scheme to the Democrats.
Barr’s move came at what may be a critical time for the Trump-related investigations that Berman’s office has been conducting.
In October 2019, Berman’s prosecutors charged two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in a complicated plot to violate campaign finance laws. Parnas and Fruman had been aiding Trump and Giuliani in their long campaign to get Ukrainian officials to fabricate information about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter — the same scheme that led to Trump’s impeachment. The New York Times reported last year that Berman’s office was also investigating Giuliani himself, to determine whether he had violated federal lobbying laws in his efforts to gather dirt on Biden in Ukraine.
In January, Parnas publicly broke with Giuliani and Trump, and his lawyer told the Times that he was willing to cooperate with the prosecutors in New York investigating Giuliani and his Ukrainian scheme. Parnas spoke just as the Trump impeachment proceedings related to the same issues were underway. It seems likely that he has been talking with the prosecutors in Berman’s office ever since, telling them what he knows about Giuliani’s Ukrainian schemes to help reelect Trump.
If Giuliani is indicted in connection with the anti-Biden Ukraine scheme, that would revive Trump’s impeachment as a major issue in the presidential campaign. And that could explain why Barr moved against Berman now.
Since he became U.S. attorney general last year, Barr’s campaign to protect Donald Trump and punish his enemies has led him to bulldoze the traditions and norms of the Department of Justice that have generally prevented it from being used as a weapon to protect presidents. What is most disturbing is the prospect that Barr is now providing a road map for a future attorney general to do the same.