The Rot at the Department of Justice

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote this post about the resilience of the Department of Justice in the face of president Trump’s onslaught. I argued that although Trump had repeatedly tried to thwart the Mueller investigation, he had been largely unsuccessful due to the strength of the norms mandating that DOJ criminal investigations be free from White House interference. And like many others, I was cautiously optimistic that this would continue under the new Attorney General, William Barr. I wrote:

Whatever you may think of his policies, Barr is a serious person and former Attorney General who understands his role. Once again, if Trump thought that by appointing Barr he was installing someone who would make protecting the president his top priority, I think he is going to be disappointed.

Yikes. You have to grant me this: when I blow it, I really blow it. It took Barr only a few months to prove how spectacularly wrong I was.

Under Barr, the norms of DOJ independence have been shredded. He repeatedly acts like a personal attorney for the president, not like an Attorney General charged with safeguarding the rule of law for the entire country. Barr and Trump have deployed DOJ as a weapon to advance Trump’s political interests and petty personal feuds. And Barr has personally intervened, in an unprecedented way, in criminal cases involving the president’s cronies.

There’s an old saying that a fish rots from the head down. Well, the head of the Department of Justice is rotten. The only question now is how far the rot will extend, and how long it will endure once Barr and Trump are gone.

Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon

The Tradition of DOJ Independence from the White House

Under president Richard Nixon, the Department of Justice was weaponized and used to further the president’s political interests. Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell went to jail for his role in Nixon’s crimes and the subsequent cover-up. Nixon’s case highlighted the dangers of allowing a president to use the awesome power of DOJ, including the power to control criminal investigations, to serve his private political interests. As part of post-Watergate reforms, a figurative wall was erected between the White House and DOJ when it came to criminal investigations.

In the nearly fifty years since Watergate, DOJ criminal investigations have been largely insulated from political influence by the White House. As a general rule, discussion of individual criminal cases between a president and the attorney general has been considered off limits, and presidents generally avoid weighing in on the merits of particular criminal cases. No one claims this rule was never stretched or breached, of course, but in general, administrations of both parties recognized that this norm of DOJ independence was important and worthy of respect.

The example from my own experience that this always brings to mind involves the prosecution of former Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. Rosty was the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill. When Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush and was elected president in 1992, I was part of a team of prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. in the midst of a lengthy criminal investigation of Rostenkowski for looting various accounts at the House of Representatives.

Rosty was a key political ally of Clinton’s and was critical to his (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to pass health care reform. But there was never even a suggestion that we should back off the investigation in order to further Clinton’s political goals. None of us involved in the case even really gave that possibility a moment’s thought — we knew that was not how DOJ operated. The investigation, begun under a Republican administration and Republican U.S. Attorney, was completed under a Democratic administration and Democratic U.S. Attorney. Rostenkowski was indicted, convicted, and sent to prison. As Eric Holder, Jr., who was the U.S. Attorney at the time, recently confirmed, there was never any interference from the White House.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Jeff Sessions
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Trump’s Early Attempts to Breach the Wall

It was always clear that Trump has no appreciation for the importance of DOJ independence and simply sees the Department, like the government in general, as a tool to be used to benefit himself. Even before he was elected, he threatened that he would direct his Attorney General to prosecute Hillary Clinton and that she would “be in jail” if he became president. Trump spoke repeatedly about wanting an Attorney General who would protect him like Roy Cohn, his former personal lawyer and chief counsel for the McCarthy hearings. Trump thought he had found that when he picked Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest and most steadfast supporters, to be his attorney general.

But Sessions, a former United States Attorney, resisted Trump’s efforts to use DOJ to serve his personal interests. When questions arose about his own contacts with Russian officials, Sessions properly recused himself from all matters involving the Russia investigation, which infuriated the president. According to the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Sessions thereafter repeatedly resisted entreaties from Trump to “un-recuse” himself so that he could step back in and shut down the Mueller investigation. Sessions maintained the independence of DOJ in other ways as well. For example, his DOJ indicted two Republican members of Congress in the fall of 2018, shortly before the mid-term elections – an act for which the president, naturally, criticized him on Twitter.

During the first two years or so of Trump’s presidency, others who also respected the tradition of DOJ independence thwarted his efforts to interfere with the Mueller probe. Trump requested “loyalty” from FBI Director James Comey, and later asked him to go easy on Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who was ultimately convicted of lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts during the campaign. When his efforts to pressure Comey failed, Trump fired him. That didn’t work either, because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another career DOJ employee, promptly appointed Mueller as special counsel.

The Mueller report also details how White House Counsel Don McGahn resisted Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice. At one point Trump demanded that McGahn have Mueller fired, but McGahn refused to follow that order and was prepared to resign in protest if necessary. Trump later ordered McGahn to create a document falsely denying that this had ever taken place, and McGahn once again refused.

The Mueller investigation proceeded to its conclusion largely unimpeded. Trump was able to do little more than rage-tweet incessantly about the “witch hunt.” There were some guardrails still in place, people who would stand up to Trump’s improper demands – or at least fail to carry them out until he moved on to something else. Trump’s efforts to bend DOJ to his will were largely unsuccessful. That’s what I wrote about in that earlier post.

Now all that has changed.

Attorney General William Barr
Attorney General William Barr

Barr’s Politicized Department of Justice

After more than a year with Barr as the Attorney General, it’s become clear that he has no intention of upholding DOJ’s tradition of independence from White House influence. On the contrary, Barr appears only too willing to use the power of DOJ to protect the president and advance Trump’s personal political interests.

The first real sign of trouble was Barr’s handling of the Mueller report. His incredibly misleading press conference and letter after he had received the final report “spun” the results and created the impression that Mueller had found no wrongdoing by the president. Although Mueller had declined to make a call on obstruction of justice, Barr himself declared that there had been no obstruction. When the report was finally released weeks later, it became apparent how misleading Barr’s characterization of the report had been, but by that time the “no obstruction, no collusion” narrative was firmly implanted in the public’s mind.

There have been many other troublesome events. For example, in the wake of the phone call with the president of Ukraine that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment, DOJ quickly concluded there was no campaign finance violation and did not even investigate the possibility of bribery, which was clearly implicated by the call. During the Trump administration’s ongoing battles with Congress, Barr’s DOJ has repeatedly supported the administration’s complete refusal to cooperate  with Congressional oversight and blanket assertions of absolute immunity prohibiting testimony by any administration officials. In court pleadings, DOJ has argued that Congress essentially lacks the power to investigate any possible criminal misconduct by the president. Barr announced he has created an intake process to accept information from Rudy Giuliani about the Bidens and Ukraine, part of the efforts that led to Trump’s impeachment. He has appointed another U.S. Attorney, John Durham, to examine whether the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was begun improperly, part of Trump’s claim that the entire Russia investigation was a hoax.

But in recent weeks, it’s been Barr’s interference in the criminal cases of Trump allies who were prosecuted by Mueller that has really set off alarm bells about the lack of DOJ independence.

Roger Stone
Roger Stone

The Roger Stone Case

Republican political operative and Trump advisor Roger Stone was convicted by a jury last November of seven felony counts of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The jury found that Stone repeatedly lied to a Congressional committee about his role as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks concerning the stolen Democratic emails that were released in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. Stone also threatened another witness, Randy Credico, including sending text messages telling Credico to “prepare to die” and threatening to harm Credico’s dog.

The federal sentencing guidelines call for Stone to be sentenced to between 7 and 9 years in prison. That’s a pretty stiff sentence for this kind of case, but it was largely driven by the threats to a witness and by the pervasiveness of Stone’s misconduct. The sentence was calculated by the U.S. Probation Office, which prepares a pre-sentence report for the judge that includes the guidelines calculations.

The career prosecutors who convicted Stone filed a sentencing memorandum on Monday, February 10. They took a pretty hard line on Stone and his misconduct, and agreed that a sentence within the guideline range recommended by the probation department would be appropriate. At the same time, they acknowledged the court might find that some of the guidelines enhancements should not apply, and that such a finding could result in a lower sentence. Overall, it was a tough but measured position and, considering that it was right in line with probation’s recommendation, it was certainly nothing unusual. In fact, they were following DOJ policy; Sessions had issued a memorandum in 2017 instructing prosecutors that in most cases they should request sentences within the guideline range.

But at around 2:00 am the following day, Trump tweeted out what he thought about the proposed sentence:

Hours later on Tuesday, senior DOJ officials announced that they thought the proposed sentence “extreme, excessive, and grossly disproportionate” and that they would be filing a new sentencing memorandum. That memorandum was filed later on Tuesday, with the Department now recommending a much lower sentence. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted out a congratulations to William Barr for “taking charge” of the Stone case.

The Tuesday Night Massacre

None of the names of the four career prosecutors who worked on the Stone case appeared on the new sentencing memo. They all moved to withdraw from the case in protest, and one of them quit the Department of Justice entirely. Some have dubbed this the “Tuesday Night Massacre,” a reference to the Watergate “Saturday Night Massacre” when Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General both resigned rather than carry out his order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. (In this sequel, the role of Solicitor General Robert Bork, who ultimately agreed to fire Cox, is played by John Crabb, Jr., a supervisor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, who signed the pleading after the other prosecutors refused and quit.)

Barr subsequently claimed in an interview that he had already decided to intervene in the Stone case before Trump’s tweet, and that he had no communication with the White House about it. But even if true, that’s beside the point. Everyone, including Barr, could predict how Trump would react to Stone’s proposed sentence. And there is absolutely nothing unusual or extraordinary about Stone’s case that would justify the personal attention of the Attorney General.

Former DOJ officials have been commenting on social media about how many cases they can recall where the Attorney General personally intervened about a sentencing recommendation. So far, the total for everyone I’ve seen – including me – is zero. And it would be ridiculous to suggest that Barr suddenly developed a newfound concern about the harshness of the federal sentencing guidelines. There’s no plausible explanation for Barr’s intervention other than that it was done to appease the president and try to cut one of his political cronies a break.

Michael Flyy
Michael Flynn

The Michael Flynn Case

The case of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, has seen some strange twists and turns. Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador in the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration. He agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. At the time of his initial sentencing date in December 2018, prosecutors told the court that Flynn’s cooperation was extensive and they did not oppose a sentence of probation. However the judge did not seem satisfied, and looked like he was poised to send Flynn to prison anyway. The sentencing was then continued to allow Flynn to cooperate further by testifying in the trial of his former business associate about their work on behalf of Turkey.

Leading up to that trial, however, prosecutors decided Flynn was lying to them, and they never put him on the stand. They went back to his sentencing judge and withdrew their recommendation of a sentence of probation, arguing for a sentence within the guideline range – which was still only 0-6 months.

Flynn’s new lawyer, Fox news regular and conspiracy theorist Sydney Powell, flipped out (that’s a legal term). She filed motions to withdraw Flynn’s guilty plea and to dismiss the case entirely, accusing prosecutors of gross misconduct. Prosecutors responded to those motions by returning to their earlier recommendation of a sentence of probation. That seemed odd, but not earth-shattering, since probation was always an option within the recommended guideline range.

But now it appears Barr may have had a hand in that reversal as well. There are reports that Barr has appointed an outside prosecutor to review the entire Flynn prosecution. And during the time the government softened its sentencing position, Trump removed the U.S. Attorney who had convicted Stone, Jessie Liu, and replaced her with Timothy Shea, a former close aide to Barr. The government’s backing off harsher sentencing recommendations as to both Stone and Flynn coincides with the arrival of Barr loyalist Shea as the acting U.S. Attorney.

The Fallout from Barr’s Actions

Barr’s very public interference with the criminal investigations of Trump’s political cronies has resulted in some extraordinary blowback. More than 2,000 former DOJ employees, from both parties, have signed a letter demanding that Barr resign. Barr’s former colleague in the George H.W. Bush Justice Department, former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer, wrote an article in the Atlantic demanding the same thing. The Federal Judges Association convened an emergency meeting to discuss the “deepening crisis” involving Barr and the DOJ. There are rumors that Barr is thinking about resigning, although I find that very hard to believe.

Trump, meanwhile, tweeted that he believes he has every right to intervene in criminal cases prosecuted by DOJ:

As disturbing as this Tweet may be, Trump is technically correct: there is no law that prohibits such interference. Only the norm of DOJ independence, and our traditional adherence to the rule of law, stand in his way. This norm is what separates us from authoritarian regimes, where leaders use criminal prosecution as a political weapon against their enemies. Events over the past year have shown us what a fragile norm that is, and how easily it can be discarded by an administration with no regard for the rule of law and concerned only about maintaining power.

You have to wonder what else might be coming between now and the election. What will become of all the other investigations that were referred out by Mueller, and with the ongoing investigations in the Southern District of New York that may implicate Trump, his business, his family, and his close associates? There seems little reason to be confident that they will be allowed to proceed unimpeded.

It also now seems entirely predictable that, at some point later this year, we are going to hear an announcement from DOJ of some kind of investigation that benefits the president. Maybe it will be a criminal investigation of whoever ends up being Trump’s Democratic opponent, or a report concluding that the entire Russia investigation was a sham and part of a “deep state” effort to take down Trump. Under Barr, the politicization of DOJ appears to be nearly complete.

There are still a few guardrails remaining. One is the independent judiciary. The judges in the Stone and Flynn cases will have the final word on their sentences, regardless of the DOJ recommendations – although Trump will, of course, always have the final card to play in the form of a possible pardon. And the dedicated career people at DOJ, who still believe in its mission, will continue to fight and protest from the inside. Perhaps more will follow the lead of the Stone prosecutors by stepping down rather than agreeing to go along with Barr’s corruption.

One day, one way or another, Trump and Barr will be gone. I hope that DOJ can recover from the damage they have done. It’s not easy to restore public trust once an institution’s integrity has been so badly tarnished. But the country did it after Watergate, and hopefully it can do it again. If not, then the damage to our system of justice and belief in the rule of law may become one of the most tragic legacies of the Trump administration.

Corruption Is the New Collusion

If we were creating one of those New Year’s “In and Out” lists, collusion would be “Out” and corruption would be “In.” Allegations of corruption are central to the Articles of Impeachment of president Trump, which charge that the president acted for “corrupt purposes” and with “corrupt motives” in his dealings with Ukraine. Trump supporters claim, however implausibly, that his actions were justified by his concerns about corruption in Ukraine. But “corruption” is not a criminal offense, so general claims of corruption don’t tell us much about the seriousness or criminality of the underlying behavior.

This reminds me of the debates about “collusion” over the past couple of years. During the Mueller investigation, allegations of collusion and whether it was a crime served primarily to muddy the waters. The term collusion can refer to a wide variety of actions that are not at all criminal. Trump and his supporters were thus able to argue that “collusion is not a crime” while ignoring that conduct that could be described as collusion could also, in some cases, violate criminal statutes.

Just as arguing about collusion was not illuminating, claims about corruption are similarly unhelpful. They allow supporters of the president to argue that everyone is corrupt and so what the president did was not unusual. Certainly, they claim, you can’t impeach a president for engaging in the kind of conduct that goes on every day in the Washington D.C. swamp. But general allegations of corruption obscure the critical differences between conduct that may be merely unseemly or “politics as usual” and conduct that is truly criminal and an abuse of office. As the impeachment proceedings move forward, that’s a distinction that should not be lost.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III

The Special Counsel and Collusion

During the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, there were repeated allegations of possible collusion with Russians by members of the Trump campaign. As I’ve noted here before, there is no crime called collusion. Collusion refers to working with someone, usually in secret and toward some improper end. In criminal law, we call that a conspiracy. When Mueller issued his final report, he also noted that collusion is not a criminal concept. He examined the various contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign under the law of criminal conspiracy, and determined that none of them rose to that level.

Some found it difficult to accept that the campaign’s contacts with and willing acceptance of help from various Russian sources might not be unlawful. But there’s a great deal of conduct that may be reckless, bumbling, or dishonorable and still not be a crime. In other words, there’s a lot of collusion that isn’t criminal.

In the public debates during the Mueller investigation, the constant references to all Russian contacts as collusion mostly resulted in confusion. It allowed the president’s supporters to argue that because collusion is not a crime, if Mueller was looking at collusion the investigation must be a political witch hunt. Using the catch-all of collusion obscured the distinctions between acts that were simply deplorable and those that might have been truly criminal.

There’s No Crime Called “Corruption”

As with collusion, there is no crime called “corruption.” That term covers a multitude of sins, most of which are not criminal. Much of what goes on in the D.C. “swamp” every day involving the confluence of money, power, and politics may look inappropriate or sleazy and may be considered corrupt by many. But most of it does not run afoul of the criminal law.

The heartland of criminal corruption is crimes such as bribery, improperly using the power of a public office for personal benefit. As I’ve argued elsewhere (here and here, for example) president Trump’s dealings with Ukraine meet all the elements of federal bribery law: the president demanded a thing of value (announcing the investigation of a political rival) in exchange for his official acts of releasing the military aid to Ukraine and agreeing to a state visit at the White House with Ukraine’s president. This kind of quid pro quo deal by a public official is textbook criminal corruption. This is actual criminal conduct, and an abuse of the power of the presidency.

But consider a politician who takes hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and later supports legislation benefitting that industry. Or a cabinet official who resigns and becomes a highly-paid lobbyist, working on behalf of the industry she used to be in charge of regulating. Many might consider such actions corrupt, but they are common occurrences. Without much more, they don’t amount to a crime. We can deplore such actions and argue they suggest a need for better ethics laws or campaign finance reform. But for better or worse, with the system that we have, such actions are not criminal.

The Zephyr Teachout Article

A great example of the problem with allegations of corruption is an article published this week in The Guardian by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who has written a book about corruption in America and who has endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. The title is: “‘Middle Class’ Joe Biden has a Corruption Problem – It Makes Him a Weak Candidate.” Teachout argues that Biden “has a big corruption problem” that would make him a poor choice to take on president Trump. In support of her claim, she points to three areas — finance, health care, and energy — where she claims Biden has worked to benefit corporate interests that have funded his campaigns. She argues that Biden’s “record represents the transactional, grossly corrupt culture in Washington that long precedes Trump.” Teachout claims this “corruption” of Biden’s will enable Trump to “muddy the water, to once again pretend he is the one ‘draining the swamp’, running against Washington culture.”

There’s no allegation that Biden did anything illegal in any of the examples cited by Teachout. If he’s guilty of anything, it’s of simply playing the Washington swamp game as it currently exists. Many, including Teachout, might think that’s a problem and might decry the influence of money in politics. They might argue persuasively for the need for campaign finance reform. But politics as usual is not a crime. And although the behavior may be unseemly and undesirable, I wouldn’t label lawful political behavior as corrupt. It’s possible to argue for reforming the system without accusing those who are acting lawfully within that current system of corruption.

By calling Biden corrupt, Teachout obscures the differences between true criminally corrupt behavior and behavior that is legal, if swampy. She lumps Biden’s conduct together with Trump’s and labels it all “corruption,” although she agrees that Trump is worse. But any differences between them, apparently, are simply a matter of degree, not of substance. She’s helping Trump make the exact argument that she claims to fear: that everyone is corrupt and so Trump’s behavior is no different from any other politician’s. I think this is wildly misguided and plays directly into Trump’s hands.

(And as a political aside, I think Teachout is kidding herself if she believes that Bernie Sanders, who has spent his entire career in the Washington swamp, will somehow be inoculated against Trump’s attacks if he’s the nominee. For his part, Sanders has disavowed the Teachout article and apologized to Biden for it.)

Hunter and Joe Biden

The Burisma Allegations

Now consider the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which put Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board at a hefty salary despite his lack of obvious qualifications. The president and his supporters have urged that Hunter Biden’s appointment to the Burisma board should be investigated as “corruption.” Trump’s demand that Ukraine conduct such an investigation is part of the basis for the Article of Impeachment charging him with abuse of power.

Burisma no doubt hoped that adding such a high-profile American name to its board would provide some political or economic benefit or burnish its image. It may seem unfair or inappropriate that Biden was able to cash in on his family name like this. We may decry the existence of this American aristocracy (although it is richly ironic for Trump and his children to do so). Given the appearances it created, it was poor judgment for Hunter to accept the position. But hope, unfairness, bad judgment, and having a prominent family name are not crimes.

There is no allegation that Hunter actually did anything illegal, just a vague implication that there must have been something fishy going on. Hunter was a private citizen, so there can be no allegation of criminal public corruption directly related to his own actions. He was legally free to accept the job, even if he believed he was unqualified and that Burisma was a sucker to pay him so much money. In hindsight I suspect he would agree that it was dumb for him to take the board seat, given the problems he created for himself and his father. But creating a mere appearance of impropriety is likewise not a crime.

Because Hunter was not a public official, any allegations of criminal corruption would have to link back somehow to his father, who was vice-president at the time. Trump allies have tried to suggest a link between Hunter Biden’s position and then-vice president Joe Biden’s work to convince Ukraine to oust its top prosecutor Viktor Shokin. The allegation is that Shokin was forced out because he was threatening to investigate Burisma, but the facts don’t support that allegation. Just the opposite, in fact: numerous reports have noted that Shokin was ousted because he was too soft on corruption.

In addition, the vice president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to get rid of Shokin took place in public. Corrupt acts usually take place in secret. Biden’s actions were in furtherance of official American policy and were supported by the entire European community. There’s no credible evidence that Joe Biden acted as part of a quid pro quo or to benefit his son. Such theories live on only in the fevered conspiracy dreams of the likes of Rudy Giuliani.   

Trump’s demands to Ukraine, on the other hand, took place on a private phone call that the White House promptly took steps to conceal by placing the transcript on a classified server. We only know about it now because of the whistleblower. And there seems to be universal agreement even among people in Trump’s own administration that his withholding of the military aid was contrary to U.S. national interests.

But none of this has stopped those who claim that Hunter Biden’s mere presence on the Burisma board is proof of “corruption” that may have somehow justified Trump’s actions. For example, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley recently wrote that Hunter Biden’s contract with Burisma “was so openly corrupt it would have made Jack Abramoff blush.” But Abramoff was actually convicted of federal crimes, as were more than two dozen people in his orbit including a U.S. Congressman. He went to prison as part of perhaps the biggest criminal corruption scandal in the last twenty years. Equating Hunter Biden’s legal (if unseemly) board seat with Abramoff’s criminal misdeeds is the kind of facile argument made possible only by ignoring the malleability of term “corruption.” It’s the same kind of error made by Teachout.

Focus on the Criminal Conduct

Characterizing all swamp-like behavior as corruption enables the kind of “whataboutism” so common in today’s political battles. It allows the president and his defenders to suggest that everyone is corrupt and that his behavior is not really unusual. But just as most collusion is not criminal, most behavior that is labeled corrupt is not a crime. Trump’s conduct, on the other hand, was in fact criminal and involved abusing the power of the presidency for his own personal benefit. It is different in kind, not just in degree, from D.C. swamp politics as usual. As impeachment proceeds, Democrats would be wise to emphasize the criminal – not just corrupt — nature of president Trump’s actions.