Attorney General William P. Barr delivered a scathing critique of his own Justice Department on Wednesday night, insisting on his absolute authority to overrule career staffers, who he said too often injected themselves into politics and went “headhunting” for high-profile targets.
Speaking at an event hosted by Hillsdale College, a school with deep ties to conservative politics, Barr directly addressed the criticism that has been building for months inside the department toward his heavy hand in politically sensitive cases, particularly those involving associates of President Trump.
“What exactly am I interfering with?” he asked. “Under the law, all prosecutorial power is invested in the attorney general.”
Barr’s comments were remarkable in that the head of the Justice Department catalogued all of the ways in which he thought his agency had gone astray over the years, and in its current formulation harms the body politic. Barr has drawn considerable criticism for intervening in criminal cases in ways that help benefit the president’s friends.
The attorney general said it was he, not career officials, who has the ultimate authority to decide how cases should be handled, and he derided less-experienced, less-senior bureaucrats who current and former prosecutors have long insisted should be left to handle their cases free from interference from political appointees.
Barr said that argument, in essence, means “the will of the most junior member of the organization” would determine decisions, but he insisted he would not “blindly” defer to “whatever those subordinates want to do.”
“Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency,” he said.
The attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official, spent much of the speech eviscerating the idea of the Justice Department as a place where nonpolitical career prosecutors should be left to decide how sensitive cases are resolved.
Barr said that throughout history, prosecutors have sought to “amass glory” by prosecuting prominent people, and that he regularly witnessed that phenomenon during his supervision of the Justice Department.
“I’d like to be able to say that we don’t see headhunting in the Department of Justice,” he said. “That would not be truthful. I see it every day.”
Though Barr did not cite any particular cases, his remarks seemed to defend his recent intervention in two prosecutions of Trump’s allies. In the case against the president’s longtime friend Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to lawmakers as they probed Russian interference in the 2016 election, Barr overruled the sentencing recommendation offered by career prosecutors shortly after Trump tweeted his dismay about the matter. All four quit the case, with two later saying they felt the move was politically driven and inappropriate.
In the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with a Russian diplomat before Trump was sworn into office, Barr’s Justice Department moved to drop the charges altogether and again drew criticism that the move was inappropriate political intervention. A judge is weighing the department’s request.
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The attorney general has previously defended both moves.
Barr also criticized what he called the “criminalization of politics,” railing against television pundits for speculating on whether an official’s deed “constitutes some esoteric crime.”
“Now you have to call your adversary a criminal, and instead of beating them politically, you try to put them in jail,” Barr said, asserting that the United States was becoming akin to an Eastern European country.
“If you’re not in power, you’re in jail — or you’re a member of the press,” he quipped.
In the course of his denunciation of officials who would seek to criminalize politics, Barr never mentioned how often his boss, the president, calls for people he dislikes to be charged with crimes. When he was a candidate in 2016, Trump’s rallies frequently featured chants of “lock her up” in reference to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Since he became president, the list of officials Trump has called to go to jail has expanded to include former FBI director James B. Comey, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe and others at the FBI involved with investigating his campaign.
In a question-and-answer session after the remarks, Barr was notably critical of state coronavirus shutdown measures and of health-care professionals who advocate for them over all else.
Asked about suicides amid the pandemic, Barr said a doctor was not a “grand seer” who could set societal policy, and noted that shutdowns came with other consequences — including a rise in opioid overdoses.
“All this nonsense about how something is dictated by science is nonsense,” he said.
Barr also attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that while he agreed Black lives matter, “They’re not interested in Black lives. They’re interested in props, a small number of Blacks who are killed by police during conflicts with police — usually less than a dozen a year — who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”
Barr has urged federal prosecutors to aggressively pursue cases against those committing violence amid the protests, and in a Justice Department conference call last week he suggested they might apply the rarely used law against sedition, according to people familiar with the conversation. He specifically cited text having to do with opposing the government by force, one of the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal considerations. Barr’s suggestion was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
It is unusual but not unheard of for such charges to be brought. In 2010, during the Obama administration, the Justice Department charged nine people with seditious conspiracy over an alleged plot to attack law enforcement.
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