It has been eclipsed by coronavirus news, but only two weeks ago, chaos and controversy erupted in the Department of Justice. The president publicly criticized the government’s recommended sentence for his longtime confidante, convicted liar and obstructionist Roger Stone. Attorney General William Barr overruled the recommendation, prompting career prosecutors to withdraw from the case in protest. And that prompted more than 2,000 former federal prosecutors and other Justice Department officials to call for Barr’s resignation.
“Political interference in the conduct of a criminal prosecution is anathema to the Department’s core mission and to its sacred obligation to ensure equal justice under the law,” the DOJ alumni declared in an open letter of Feb. 16.
Every American should be grateful to these men and women. We paid taxes toward their salaries years ago, and the return on that investment is a large cohort of attorneys who remain guardians of an institution where “the fair administration of justice” is under siege.
Feeling heat from the White House is common throughout the federal system these days. Donald Trump has attacked government employees — in law enforcement, national security, the foreign service, the military — and he brags about this even as the nation faces a major health crisis that requires a life-saving response from the government he disparages.
“We have such bad people and they’re not people who love our country,” Donald Trump told cheering supporters at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday.
A 29-year-old Trump loyalist has been put in charge of purging federal agencies of “deep state” employees deemed insufficiently faithful to the president.
When we quantify all the damage he’s done, Trump’s steady attacks on honorable public servants who make up the iron core of government, the primary apparatus to protect and serve the nation, will be a major factor in the calculation.
In a long, disturbing story just published by The Atlantic, staff writer George Packer describes a Department of Justice where Trump’s heavy hand has produced “a thin layer of political loyalists on top of a cowed bureaucracy.” Of all of Trump’s efforts to bend federal agencies to his will, the one at DOJ poses a profound threat to democracy — the imposition of a president’s personal agenda on the administration of justice.
“The tradition of non-interference with the DOJ is very deep and very rich, and Trump, who is a moral cretin, doesn’t understand that. It’s not in his bones,” says Steve Sachs, the former Maryland Attorney General who served as the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore in the late 1960s. “Barr has not adhered as scrupulously to the tradition as his predecessors of both parties did. The separation of the chief executive from interfering in criminal cases is flouted by Trump, and Barr appears to be an accomplice, or at least compliant.”
James Kramon, a long-time Baltimore attorney, signed the letter calling for Barr’s resignation. Kramon was a federal prosecutor in the 1970s in an array of environmental cases against polluters and wetlands violators. New federal laws to protect the Chesapeake Bay were being tested in court and some of the polluters were large, politically-connected corporations, but Kramon’s work had the full support of the Justice Department. “I do not remember a single instance in which a politically motivated person sought to intervene,” Kramon says.
Jane Moscowitz, a Miami attorney who served as a federal prosecutor for 10 years, including a stint in Baltimore, also signed the DOJ alumni letter.
“As a prosecutor under Democrats and Republicans and a defense attorney afterwards, I knew of no instance where a prosecution was influenced from above for political or personal reasons,” Moscowitz says. “There can be no deterrent value if the common view is that charging is unfair [or] that criminal justice turns not on what someone did but whom they know.”
Stuart Simms was Maryland’s public safety secretary after serving as Baltimore’s top prosecutor and, before that, an assistant U.S. Attorney. Years ago, he heard a Harvard professor utter words that stuck as an admonition: “To do their work, it is better that the agencies of the criminal justice system be insulated from both moral passion and politics.”
Which is why Trump and Barr needed to be vigorously condemned. Especially Barr. When he does Trump’s bidding — in the Stone case, or in his willingness to review the handling of prosecutions of other Trump associates, or in his mischaracterizations of the Mueller report — the attorney general aids and abets the president’s attacks on the legitimacy of government.
Charles G. “Chuck” Bernstein was a federal prosecutor and, after that, the first federal public defender for Maryland. “Federal court was a very special place, staffed by many good people,” he says of his time there. “There was no corruption and there was an emphasis on ability and integrity.”
Bernstein, a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge, says Trump’s criticism of the federal bench, in particular, erodes public confidence. “Our system is built upon respect for the judiciary,” Bernstein says. “When Trump starts calling people ‘Obama judges,’ or suggests that a distinguished Mexican-American judge was against him because of his immigration stand, he undermines the rule of law. When he [comments on a trial] while the jury is still deliberating and pardons well-connected criminals, he undermines the rule of law.”
The question now is how far this goes, how much damage will be done, how many more good public servants will be tossed, how much expertise lost. A second Trump term, Packer argues convincingly in The Atlantic, would render the federal government into something indistinguishable from one of Trump’s holdings. “Four years is an emergency,” he writes. “Eight years is a permanent condition.”
Which is why, in their letter, the DOJ alumni called for current DOJ employees to follow the example of the career prosecutors who withdrew from the Stone case — resist, report abuses, refuse to abide unethical orders, the letter said: “The rule of law and the survival of our Republic demand nothing less.”