How Much Is Politics Influencing The Justice Department?

Feb 13, 2020
Originally published on February 13, 2020 8:53 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Attorney General William Barr is the country's top law enforcement officer, a role that is meant to be above politics. But critics argue that the attorney general has gone out of his way to protect President Trump. They cite the fact that Barr delayed release of the Mueller report, instead issuing a summary exonerating Trump of wrongdoing. And Barr withheld the whistleblower's complaint about Trump's phone call with Ukraine's president, the one that eventually led to Trump's impeachment.

And then this week, when the attorney general's Justice Department intervened in the case of Trump's longtime friend Roger Stone, the DOJ reduced prosecutors' recommended prison time after Stone was convicted of lying to Congress. Now the House Judiciary Committee wants answers, and Attorney General Barr has agreed to testify next month. George Terwilliger served as Bill Barr's deputy in the early 1990s, and he joins us now on the line. Thank you so much for making time to talk with us this morning.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I'll just ask a big-picture question first. In his confirmation hearing last year, Attorney General Barr said, quote, "the role of the attorney general is to keep the enforcement process sacrosanct from political influence." Do you think he has lived up to that?

TERWILLIGER: You know, I do. And I think one way you can see that in the context, Rachel, of this particular matter concerning the Stone sentencing case is just take a short step back and look at what is in question here. What we're talking about is a sentencing recommendation and, in fact, a sort of minor issue in that recommendation, as to whether it's going to recommend a prison sentence of X years or Y years.

And the attorney general decided, as truly the chief prosecutor, that the recommendation that had come from the career prosecutors dedicated to the case - and no doubt having strong feelings about it - was excessive. I don't think just because this is a case that is at the intersection of law and politics that the attorney general should refrain from acting where he sees a matter that he thinks deserves his attention as a professional matter, not as a political matter.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask about the timing, though, because as you know, President Trump weighed in directly on the sentencing recommendation that was handed down by longtime career prosecutors. The president tweeted out, quote, "this is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them - cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!"

So he tweeted that out in the early morning hours on February 11, and then later that same day is when the attorney general's Justice Department intervened to decrease Stone's sentence. Is that just a coincidence? Or did the attorney general choose the president over his own career prosecutors?

TERWILLIGER: I don't think it's either. And in fact, at least in what I think is very credible and detailed reporting by The Washington Post - the Post is reporting that the decision to change the recommendation after the original filing was made on Monday evening and taking place overnight before the president tweeted. That's point No. 1. Point No. 2 - I would agree that it would perhaps be better if the president didn't tweet about matters of this nature that are before the Justice Department. But on the other hand, there is a level of transparency as to his position that might not otherwise be seen.

And No. 3, I think it's erroneous to characterize this as career prosecutors versus political. Again, based on the public reporting, there were career prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington who also questioned the original recommendation. And while the U.S. attorney apparently decided - who is a political appointee - to go along with the original recommendation, at least initially, there were people, career people on his staff who disagreed, as well as, apparently, people of a career background on the staff at the leadership positions in the Justice Department.

MARTIN: The president also sent another tweet congratulating the attorney general for, quote, "taking charge of a case that was totally out of his control" (ph). So I mean, even if you argue that Barr's intervention was appropriate, is it a problem for Barr, even just in terms of optics, that you have the president congratulating him on interfering in this way?

TERWILLIGER: Yes, it is. That's a fine point. But I think when one agrees to serve in any presidential administration, you take your presidents as you find them. And, you know, this president does tend to speak out. And again, I'd say there's a certain level of transparency to the public that's there. This isn't some Nixonian, behind-the-scenes improper influence.

I do think it would be - the president would be better advised to refrain on some of these things. But he also, I think, feels very strongly that for three years in his administration, he was hounded by a case under the special counsel that really went nowhere at the end of the day and that a lot of people got ground up in those gears.

MARTIN: Well, it didn't go nowhere. There were lots of indictments, as you know, including Roger Stone.

TERWILLIGER: Well, but no indictments that had anything to do with Russian collusion, and - which was the point of the investigative exercise to begin with. They were status crimes and process crimes having to do with the investigation. And I certainly am not expressing any sympathy for Mr. Stone or his position, and I don't think the attorney general is either. After all, he is saying, look; we agree he should go to prison; it's just a question of for how long.

MARTIN: I'm going to play a tape, if you can indulge me, of David Laufman. He ran the Justice Department's counterintelligence section from 2014 to 2018. And he has a different point of view than you do. Let's listen to this, and then we'll talk on the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID LAUFMAN: Well, the implications are twofold. One, it reflects a further corrosion of the intrinsic integrity of the Department of Justice itself and its processes. Worse, perhaps, it corrodes public confidence in the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice. And if the public loses faith in the Department of Justice as an independent arbiter of the rule of law, then we have lost something sacred in this country.

MARTIN: In seconds remaining - I apologize for that - what's your response?

TERWILLIGER: I agree that it's very important to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the Justice Department's functions, and the more free from political interference that those functions are, the better. But I - at the same time, I don't think that can override the responsibility of the leadership of the Justice Department to - in appropriate cases - step in and do what they do.

MARTIN: OK.

TERWILLIGER: I hope very much that when the attorney general gets an opportunity in front of the House Judiciary Committee...

MARTIN: Yep.

TERWILLIGER: ...Or otherwise to explain what he's doing, that the public will be reassured.

MARTIN: OK. George Terwilliger - he served in the Justice Department for 15 years. We appreciate your time this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.