Why Barr Couldn’t Answer a Simple Question From Senator Harris

To answer honestly would have exposed his lack of independence.

By Tuesday night, after the four prosecutors who were involved with the Roger Stone case resigned, NBC News reported that William Barr had basically taken control of Justice Department matters that are of personal interest to Trump. As I suggested previously, that flushes the standard of an independent attorney general down the drain.

While Trump celebrated that fact on Twitter, Barr knows that when the president does things like that, it undermines his ability to carry out what Trump wants him to do—which is basically to protect the chief executive and punish his enemies. That is why Barr agreed to an interview with ABC News, where he criticized the president for those tweets and suggested that he won’t be bullied.

But this whole question of Barr’s independence as attorney general has been an issue since before he was even nominated for the job. As a reminder, back in 2017, Peter Baker contacted 10 former attorneys general to ask them how they would respond to pressure from a president to open an investigation on a political rival. The only one who responded was William Barr.

“There is nothing inherently wrong about a president calling for an investigation,” said William P. Barr, who ran the Justice Department under President George Bush. “Although an investigation shouldn’t be launched just because a president wants it, the ultimate question is whether the matter warrants investigation.”

Mr. Barr said he sees more basis for investigating the uranium deal [ie, Hillary Clinton] than any supposed collusion between Mr. Trump and Russia. “To the extent it is not pursuing these matters, the department is abdicating its responsibility,” he said.

The current attorney general suggested that there’s nothing wrong with a president pressuring the Justice Department to open an investigation on a political opponent. It is also important to keep in mind that, by the time Barr answered that query, the whole Uranium One story about Hillary Clinton had been debunked as nothing more than a right-wing conspiracy theory. So, at minimum, that response also calls into question Barr’s judgement about whether something warrants an investigation.

You might also remember that Barr was unable to answer a direct question about this from Kamala Harris when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his response to the Mueller report.

Harris asked whether “the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation on anyone?” Barr initially asked her to repeat the question and proceeded to hem and haw—ultimately avoiding a direct answer.

According to reporters at the Washington Post, the sentencing recommendations on Roger Stone come against the backdrop of Trump raging that the Justice Department isn’t doing enough to punish his enemies. That includes the president’s demands for the FBI to purge the department of people who aren’t loyal to him and prosecute James Comey. The recent news that U.S. Attorney John Huber wound down his investigation into the Clinton Foundation without any findings of wrongdoing has increased Trump’s pressure on U.S. Attorney John Durham to finish his investigation of the Trump-Russia probe and provide the president with some dirt to use in his upcoming campaign.

While Barr criticized Trump’s tweets in an effort to convince us that he remains independent, this is what the New York Times reported on Friday.

Attorney General William P. Barr has assigned an outside prosecutor to scrutinize the criminal case against President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, according to people familiar with the matter…

Mr. Barr has also installed a handful of outside prosecutors to broadly review the handling of other politically sensitive national-security cases in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, the people said…

Over the past two weeks, the outside prosecutors have begun grilling line prosecutors in the Washington office about various cases — some public, some not — including investigative steps, prosecutorial actions and why they took them, according to the people…

The moves amounted to imposing a secondary layer of monitoring and control over what career prosecutors have been doing in the Washington office. They are part of a broader turmoil in that office coincided with Mr. Barr’s recent installation of a close aide, Timothy Shea, as interim United States attorney in the District of Columbia, after Mr. Barr maneuvered out the Senate-confirmed former top prosecutor in the office, Jessie K. Liu.

That aligns with what NBC News reported about Barr taking control of cases that are of personal interest to Trump. He got rid of a prosecutor that wasn’t toeing the line, installed his own man, and is now combing over the work of career prosecutors to find an opening that he can exploit on Trump’s behalf.

The reason Barr couldn’t answer Senator Harris’s question is that he is constantly under pressure to do Trump’s bidding and seems more than happy to oblige. To say “no” to the senator’s question would have meant lying to Congress and a “yes” would have revealed the lack of independence that currently exists between the president and the attorney general.

Unlike his unhinged boss, Barr is smart enough to know that, once that truth is obvious to everyone, it undermines his ability to protect Trump and punish his enemies. That is why Barr suggested that the president’s tweets are a problem: much as an honest answer to Senator Harris’s question would have done, they publicly expose his lack of independence.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.