July 14, 2020
On Wednesday, July 8, Attorney General William Barr sat down with ABC’s Pierre Thomas in Columbia, South Carolina for a wide-ranging interview. In the course of that interview, Thomas asked several questions about Roger Stone, the long-time associate of President Donald Trump who had been convicted last November on federal charges of lying to Congress, obstructing a Congressional investigation and witness tampering. He had been sentenced to forty months in prison and was due to begin that sentence the following week.
Thomas reminded Barr that in earlier interviews Barr had described the criminal proceedings involving Stone as a “righteous prosecution” and asked if he still adhered to that view. Barr replied “Yes. He . . . was prosecuted while I was Attorney General. I think the prosecution was righteous. And I think the sentence that the judge ultimately gave was fair. As you recall, I objected to a 7 to 9-year sentence which I thought was very excessive and the judge ended up I think effectively agreeing with me and gave him a sentence of three years and four months.” In response to a later question, Barr said that the President had the power to commute Stone’s sentence or to pardon him and whether to do so was “certainly something that is committed to his judgment. But as I say I felt it was [an] appropriate prosecution and I thought the sentence was fair.”
As everyone is aware, two days later, the President did commute Stone’s sentence. But he did much more. Through his press secretary, he took dead aim at the characterizations of the prosecution his Attorney General had made forty-eight hours earlier. The press release announcing Stone’s commutation said that the President was “commuting the unjust sentence of Roger Stone.” The charges against Stone, the release said, “were the product of recklessness born of frustration and malice.” Because prosecutors could find no evidence that Stone had done anything wrong, the release continued, “they charged him for his conduct during their investigation. [His] alleged crimes [arose] solely from their own improper investigation.” The release ended with a flourish: “Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
In and of itself, the commutation of Stone’s sentence is bad enough. The lies Stone told Congress had to do with Russian hacking of computers and email accounts used by people and organizations who were supporting the campaign of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle. Testimony at Stone’s trial revealed that Stone knew of the hacking, knew that WikiLeaks had access to material gathered as a result and knew that WikiLeaks was going to release the information long before the releases occurred. Stone lied to Congress about the source of his information and then threatened the person he had falsely named as his source in an effort to keep him from testifying about the falsehood. All of that on top of Stone’s 50-year, proudly proclaimed career as a political dirty trickster who reveled in spreading falsehoods and sowing confusion in political campaign after political campaign.
But the President’s gross and destructive mischaracterizations did not stop there. He went on to say that the prosecution Barr oversaw and described as “righteous” forty-eight hours earlier was a prosecution based on nothing but frustration and malice. Compounding his denunciation, he continued by saying that the lighter sentence Barr had intervened to recommend, the sentence he had repeatedly defended as “fair” even in the face of subsequent protests by bar associations and over 2,000 former federal prosecutors, that sentence was instead “unjust.” To do all of that so publicly and forcefully was effectively to disembowel the Nation’s top law-enforcement official.
Trump, of course, has done that before. Jeff Sessions endured the President’s humiliating taunts for more than a year for doing what every ethical lawyer would have done under similar circumstances when he took himself out of the investigation that led to the appointment of Robert Mueller. Even though Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest supporters, Trump is still is seeking vengeance by supporting his opponent in the upcoming Alabama Senatorial primary. Beyond that, Trump has fired Inspectors General for doing what the law required and fired career foreign service and military officers for the same reason. At the same time, he has pardoned people like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was convicted of violating a federal injunction ordering him to stop the widespread racial profiling he used as a basis for law-enforcement decisions. Although Arpaio’s violation of the injunction trampled on the constitutional rights of Arizona residents, Trump publicly stated that he was issuing the pardon because Arpaio was “just doing his job.”
All of that has a hugely corrosive effect on the rule of law, the rule that lies at the heart of democratic institutions. The President has repeatedly shown he has no regard for that fundamental rule but this takes things to a new level. By lying in a press release about the basis for Stone’s conviction, by vilifying the Department of Justice with his claim that the Attorney General’s “righteous” prosecution was really a malicious fabrication, and by doing that in a case that, if appealed, the Attorney General is supposed to defend throughout the appellate process, the President has publicly displayed a new and ever more dangerous level of disregard for the rule of law that protects our social order.
Attorney General Barr has yet to make a public statement about the President’s action or his rationale for acting. Perhaps at some point he will. But at this point statements are not enough. The President’s dishonest and destructive mischaracterizations aim squarely at the prosecution Barr oversaw, the honorable prosecutors who tried the case and the resulting conviction and sentence for which he vouched. In the face of that, Barr’s resignation forthwith is the only appropriate response. Otherwise, he is left to soldier on in the service of expediency, truth and rule of law be damned, thus showing a watching nation that he is simply one more enabler of this would-be king.