Attorney General Bill Barr derided the “criminalization of politics” on Wednesday evening, admonishing federal prosecutors at the Justice Department for opening politically-motivated investigations, while also defending his decisions to overrule federal prosecutors in high-profile cases involving close associates of President Donald Trump. Barr’s remarks, which included a comparison of pandemic-related restrictions to slavery, were made hours after it was reported that he had asked prosecutors to explore filing criminal charges against Seattle’s Democratic mayor. The attorney general’s speech left a number of attorneys and many Obama-era DOJ alumni outraged.
“Because I am ultimately accountable for every decision the department makes, I have an obligation to ensure we make the correct ones,” Barr said during his approximately 4-minute speech in Michigan at the conservative liberal arts school, Hillsdale College.
Barr espoused a broad view of his own authority, in an apparent effort to justify controversial and seemingly political decisions to overrule career prosecutors in high-profile criminal cases involving Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the president’s longtime confidant Roger Stone. Barr’s intervention regarding Stone’s sentencing recommendation resulted in every prosecutor on the case withdrawing in protest.
“[D]evolving all authority down to the most junior officials does not even make sense as a matter of basic management. Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren’t any,” Barr said. “Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency. Good leaders at the Justice Department—as at any organization—need to trust and support their subordinates.
“But that does not mean blindly deferring to whatever those subordinates want to do,” Barr said.
The comparison of assistant U.S. attorneys to preschoolers sparked swift backlash.
“This is the AG demeaning the career men and women of his own department, comparing them to preschoolers. These dedicated public servants are working hard every day to try to get it right,” former Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates tweeted. “They deserve his respect, not disdain.”
Eric Holder, the former attorney general under President Barack Obama, pushed back on Barr’s putting of the line prosecutors in their place.
“Though dangerous, Barr is becoming increasingly absurd. When I was at DOJ – regardless of my ultimate authority – I saw the career staff as trusted colleagues, not preschoolers,” he wrote. “To my friends at DOJ, know that this nation values and supports you. I do.”
Former attorney in the Obama DOJ Civil Rights Division Sasha Samberg-Champion noted that it used to be considered a “good thing for individual prosecution decisions to be insulated from political pressure,” saying that Barr was “turning that on its head.”
Taking questions after his speech, Barr shifted his attentions to the pandemic. He said that states with Democratic governors had abused their authority by issuing lockdown orders and mask mandates, suggesting the practice was a step below slavery on the historical violation of civil liberties scale.
“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said, a response that evoked a round of applause from the crowd, according to CNN.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, a CNN legal analyst, responded the U.S. “literally forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps” in World War II.
Others mentioned the Jim Crow era, the Trail of Tears, and NSA bulk data collection, to name only a few.
CNN political analyst and former federal prosecutor Elie Honig summed up Barr’s speech by saying the attorney general had “lost it,” and warning that things will only “get worse.”
Media commentators said the speech was proof Barr is the “most dangerous person in the Trump administration.”
Others said the attorney general should be impeached.
Such calls were made after Barr’s Federalist Society speech in Nov. 2019. The speech was dubbed “lunatic authoritarian.”
[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]
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