The Republican Party gutted the rule of law in five acts this week. First, Senator Lindsey Graham revealed that Attorney General Bill Barr had set up a pipeline for President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to provide so-called “dirt” on former Vice President Joe Biden. Then, Barr confirmed that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh would accept gifts of dirt from Giuliani, despite the fact that Giuliani himself is under federal investigation.
Separately, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia on Tuesday recommended the court sentence longtime Trump associate Roger Stone to seven to nine years in prison; Stone was convicted last November of lying to Congress and witness tampering. Then Trump tweeted in the middle of the night that he thought Stone’s sentencing recommendation was too harsh. Hours later, a Department of Justice official announced the Department would be changing its sentencing recommendation for Stone, calling the original recommendation from the line prosecutors “extreme” and “grossly disproportionate” to Stone’s crimes.
The matter didn’t end there. The president subsequently pulled the nomination of former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu to be Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Liu had served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and was, until recently, overseeing the Michael Flynn and Roger Stone prosecutions. Liu’s confirmation hearing for Treasury had been scheduled for this week. By pulling her nomination, Trump effectively quashed her congressional testimony on Stone.
To put it bluntly, Trump’s corruption of the Justice Department hides in plain sight. Equally obvious is the complicity of the attorney general who has made clear time and again that he’s perfectly willing to subvert the national interest to advance the president’s political interest.
Throughout the impeachment process, the Democratic-controlled House fulfilled its constitutional obligation to act as a check on a lawless president, even as Republican Senators vowed to protect him and abdicate their responsibility. But Congress shouldn’t stop with Trump. If anything, the events of this week have made it painfully necessary that House lawmakers must turn their sights on investigating Bill Barr.
From his prebuttal spin of the Mueller Report, effectively manipulating the public about its findings, to unprecedentedly joining Criminal Division meetings with Rudy Giuliani and his client, both of whom were under investigation, to his latest moves this week, Barr has abandoned any semblance of independence. Instead, he has telegraphed to the world that he serves as an extension of the president.
No one has Barr hurt more than the career public servants at the Justice Department. Indeed, Barr’s latest actions prompted a “Tuesday Night Massacre”—when the four federal prosecutors on the Stone case, whose stellar reputations were widely known, resigned. Two of them had been part of Robert Mueller Special Counsel’s office.
These resignations sent shockwaves through the bipartisan Justice alumni community—of which I am a part—and served as the first public sign of discomfort among the department’s career attorneys.
Yet, despite the norms that the attorney general has gutted, DOJ has not produced the slew of career whistleblowers and truthtellers that we have seen coming out of other agencies over the last several months.
Whether wittingly or unwittingly, other career public servants have stepped up to inform the American people about the harm this administration is incurring. For instance, Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, Fiona Hill, and Marie Yovanovitch have spoken truth to power on Capitol Hill, and in op-eds.
While government attorneys may, by nature, be risk-averse and media-shy, the silence from those who are witnesses to Barr’s corruption is deafening. Career attorneys have been in the rooms where this has happened; they’ve been on the email chains. They are witnesses. It’s time for them to tell us what they know.
I worked for 18 years as a career attorney at the Department of Justice, largely in the Criminal Division and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. I recruited attorneys across the agency and befriended many prosecutors. During my tenure, I concluded that Justice attorneys had an intense drive to do the right thing. They chose careers in government service over lucrative law firm jobs. Simply put, they made personal sacrifices so they could serve justice and protect the rule of law.
The career attorneys I knew and worked with traveled the globe representing the United States on foreign soil to spread democracy and fight corruption. We never discussed personal politics, because it wasn’t part of the day-to-day work of representing the American people. I never knew my career colleagues’ political affiliations, and they didn’t know mine. It was a non-issue.
Every Justice leadership office, or front office, except that of the Attorney General, tends to employ a mix of career lawyers and political appointees. Many, if not most, critical decisions in the department are made after input from both career and political appointees at the highest levels. Career attorneys join meetings with political appointees discussing the many legal and broad implications of every decision involving every individual case. They go on trips with political leadership around the country and around the world. Career attorneys also go to the White House and Eisenhower Executive Office Building for meetings with officials and from other agencies.
So, as the guardrails fall off our democracy each day, I keep wondering: Where are the Justice Department’s whistleblowers? Where are the people who have spent decades proudly serving the American public and have been sitting in on meetings with Trump appointees for the last three years?
There is no doubt in my mind that some of them are trying to impose the rule of law and institutional norms where they can. They may feel, like former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, that they are the grown-ups in the room. They could believe that, were they not there, the Trump sycophants would advance the worst of the Trump’s impulses. They may think that they serve as an internal “check” on the president. They may fear they are bound by attorney-client privilege.
I suspect they are largely keeping their heads down and getting their day-to-day work. I know my former colleagues are going after child pornographers, protecting us from foreign threats, working to disrupt drug cartels, and enforcing the civil rights laws where they still can.
Of course, no one at DOJ wants the treatment that the State Department’s whistleblowers have endured. Nor does the public disparagement of Bruce Ohr, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok, Andrew McCabe, or Jim Comey suggest a pleasant path forward. The prospect of hiring a personal attorney, looking for another job, and having one’s name in the papers goes against every ounce of the invisible, under-the-radar existence that Justice lawyers enjoy.
Perhaps they are worried about reaching retirement. Perhaps they are concerned about their ability to find the next job in a town as small as Washington. Perhaps, they fear retribution to their families and livelihoods. That’s why it’s so important for the House to conduct swift oversight hearings—it could provide some cover for the attorney whistleblowers.
Two years ago, I self-published a piece on Medium in which I lauded the attorneys at DOJ whose professionalism and integrity I relied on to ensure that justice would prevail in the Trump era. I felt safer because I knew the type of high-caliber people, with strong values and a reverence for service, who tend to work for years and decades at the Department of Justice.
Two years later, I am feeling quite differently. I say this recognizing that I haven’t faced the same moral dilemma as these career attorneys; I left the Department before the Trump administration began.
But I believe there comes a point where keeping one’s head down becomes tantamount to keeping one’s head in the sand. In today’s America, that approach actually fails to serve the American people. If Justice attorneys turn their back on Trump’s and Barr’s corruption, they will undercut the integrity of the country they have spent their lives serving.