Pop quiz! Which of these men is currently behind bars? A) Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty over two years ago to lying to FBI agents in a scheme to defraud the United States; B) Roger Stone, convicted four months ago on obstruction, witness tampering, and five counts of making false statements; C) Paul Manafort, convicted on eight counts of tax evasion, bank fraud, and hiding foreign bank accounts and pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy against the United States and witness tampering; D) Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making false statements, and two counts of illegal campaign contributions at the request of a candidate? The answer, of course, is E) None of the above.
Since William Barr became attorney general, he has withdrawn charges against Flynn, reduced the sentencing for Stone, and both Cohen and Manafort have been sprung from prison out of concerns over COVID-19. (Oddly enough, there are people still in both of the prisons where Manafort and Cohen were serving who didn’t get a pass to return home when the pandemic hit.) Despite working together to corrupt an election, conspire against the nation, suborn perjury, intimidate witnesses, and walk away with millions, every one of Donald Trump’s boys is comfortably Netflix-and-chillin’ at home. That’s what it means to have the head of the so-called Justice Department willing to cut down tradition, precedent, and U. S. attorneys to protect the boss.
It’s not absolutely certain that Stone and Flynn will avoid spending some time on the other side of bars. Despite Barr’s best efforts, Judge Emmet Sullivan seems likely to bounce Flynn’s case back to the full Appeals Court for another go at forcing some kind of consequences, though surely insufficient, for Flynn’s both lying to the FBI and breaking a deal with the special investigator. Stone—who was convicted back on February 20, but unaccountably had all the way until June 30 to show up for his sentence—has now applied for the same get-out-of-jail-because-COVID pass that Manafort and Cohen have already received. It’s hard to believe he won’t get it. The odds that either of the pair will ever need a genuine Trump pardon to avoid a day behind bars is slim.
Meanwhile, the sentences for Manafort and Cohen have been commuted to serving the remainder of their term under “house arrest.” So even if the pandemic were to vanish as magically as Trump has claimed, neither would have to put down their Scotch bottle or get off the couch—which in Manafort’s case, is probably covered in the hide of something endangered.
As The New York Times reports, Barr’s attempts to interfere in these cases isn’t anything new. From the moment he arrived in D.C., Trump’s incoming attorney general began to undermine the case against Cohen, questioning why U. S. attorneys had even bothered to investigate a case of extortion and campaign fraud. Even though Cohen had been convicted by the time Barr was officially installed as AG, he still ordered up a memo listing arguments with which the Justice Department could attack its own case and own attorneys. The goal of that memo wasn’t just to free Cohen, but to start building the groundwork for the prosecutions ahead—Stone and Flynn. Barr deliberately turned the headquarters of the DOJ into a machine that operated to destroy the cases of the U. S. attorneys serving at offices across the nation.
Where previous attorney generals had recused themselves from politically charged cases involving the man who put them in office, Barr ran toward those cases. Under Barr, the priorities of the Justice Department became a mirror of Trump’s priorities. Trump wanted conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton investigated, so Barr created a special investigator and sent a team around the world, traveling with them himself and several times trying to get foreign governments to make statements that would undermine both U. S. agents and U. S. intelligence in order to feed Trump’s Q-grade theories.
At home, Barr destroyed the results of the Mueller investigation, dismissed the obvious findings of obstruction, and wrote Trump a clean bill of health. Then he set out to assist in a purge of the FBI and rest of the DOJ to ensure that Trump loyalists, and only Trump loyalists, remained—even if that meant shoehorning totally inexperienced and inappropriate figures into critical roles.
And it meant that Barr dove into cases directly involving Trump and his associates. That meant not just leaning on U. S. attorneys to get the results he wanted, it meant replacing those attorneys who failed to play ball. Unprecedented is an overworked term when it comes to Barr, but it’s often the only one that fits. The removal of sentencing suggestions in the case of Roger Stone and the complete withdrawal of the case against Michael Flynn despite a guilty plea, were genuinely unprecedented events. Also terrifying when it comes to the rule of law.
Rather than attempting to limit the extent of politics within the Justice Department, Barr has made it clear to everyone inside and outside of the agency that he intends to make it more political. U. S. attorneys who attempt to operate with impartiality are to be “reined in” and reminded who is boss. Which is exactly what happened as Barr ousted first Washington D. C. attorney Jessie Liu, then clumsily bulled his way through removal of U. S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman.
Clearing that SDNY office, and moving to replace Berman with Jay Clayton—a close friend of Barr’s who has never prosecuted a case of any kind—doesn’t just punish Berman for his role in going after Trump associates, it cuts off future threats to Trump. Whether it’s corporate malfeasance, tax fraud, a fake university, using a charity as a personal slush fund, or the antics of Rudy Giuliani, Trump is free from any concern so long as the U. S. attorney in the Manhattan office is both inexperienced and in his pocket.
Barr hasn’t just ignored the lines that supposedly exist between the White House and the Justice Department, he has actively worked to destroy even the impression that there should be such boundaries. He has openly operated the DOJ as if it is Donald Trump’s personal legal team and opposition research squad. Barr should be impeached at a minimum. There is no magic umbrella above Barr’s head, no tangled interpretation that says he can’t be disbarred, charged, and convicted.
With all Trump’s pals wearing their cashmere slippers at home, there are plenty of open jail cells. One of them should have Barr’s name on it.