William Barr testifies on Mueller report, sinks in moral quicksand | News Coverage from USA

William Barr testifies on Mueller report, sinks in moral quicksand


Attorney General William Barr’s recent rollout of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report left me glued to a keyboard. That was all I could do to vent my anger at Barr’s naked attempt to bury a presidential condemnation that reduces Watergate to a Mister Rogers version of the scandal infecting the White House.   

Just this week, we learned that Mueller complained in a March letter to Barr that Barr’s four-page summary failed to accurately express the “context, nature and substance” of Mueller’s 448-page report and created “public confusion.” The revelation compounded the crash damage that already had the Justice Department on moral life support. 

Barr threw himself even deeper into a legal and ethical rabbit hole with defensive testimony Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He attempted to resuscitate his failing credibility. He did not succeed.

Read more commentary:

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Love him or hate him, Jeff Sessions is why Mueller’s Russia probe is still on track

Barr’s Mueller report rollout was disgraceful. I can’t believe it but I miss Jeff Sessions.

Among Barr’s misses:

►He dismissed Mueller’s letter to him as “a bit snitty.”

►He said last month that any dissatisfaction about the Mueller report rollout by Mueller team members was due only to their desire to have more of the report publicly released. But that did not comport with the broad concerns Mueller raised in his letter to Barr, as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, pointed out: “Mr. Barr, I feel that your answer was purposely misleading, and I think others do, too.” 

►He claimed it was not obstruction for the president to order former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller and then tell McGahn to lie about the order.

►He insisted that Trump’s public comments urging witnesses to stay strong and not flip do not constitute obstruction. I, and most prosecutors I worked with, would disagree. 

►He said he couldn’t think of a way to test the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. When asked, he replied, “None that comes to mind.” I have a suggestion: The president gets indicted by one of the state or federal agencies investigating him and he challenges the indictment in court, based on the OLC opinion. The courts will rule, and then we will know. 

Leaders do the right thing despite Barr 

Despite the quicksand that threatens to consume the Justice Department whole, on Saturday night I got an email that caused me to reflect on the good that comes from so many law enforcement agents and attorneys who are part of the Justice Department family. The email announced the 30-year retirement of an agent I worked with in the 1990s in Detroit. 

We spent two years of 12-hour days building a wiretap case against members of a violent drug and murder-for-hire gang. The agent was smart, worked tirelessly and always did the right thing — whether it helped or hurt our case. 

I had not seen the agent for decades, so I Googled him to see how his career had progressed. Up popped countless videos of him testifying before Congress. Turns out, Thomas Brandon had been leading the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives since the Obama administration.

Before retiring this week, he had criticized President Donald Trump’s budget cuts and testified in support of a bill, opposed by the White House, that would give the FBI more time to perform gun background checks.  In an administration of Trump “yes men,” it is reassuring to know there are still some people at DOJ who will do the right thing, no matter the cost. Tom Brandon is not alone. 

Trump-era prosecutors have guts

It was an act of courage, and a set of steeled spines, that saw a group of prosecutors at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office all but name the president of the United States as an unindicted co-conspirator in a campaign finance fraud scheme that included the president’s longtime personal attorney. As long as Michael Cohen is vomiting Trump secrets, and Trump is in power, those prosecutors will not be ascending to higher DOJ positions. And surely they have contemplated the possibility they could be relegated to Social Security fraud duty, until the “Winter White House” melts away and Mar-a-Lago reverts to its former incarnation as just another overpriced golf club.   

The same is true of DOJ law enforcement. Last year, the FBI arrested Cesar Sayoc, a vocal Trump cheerleader who pleaded guilty to mailing 16 pipe bombs to Democrats and Trump critics,  including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and California Rep. Maxine Waters. That Sayoc’s hit list mirrored the president’s rhetorical targets did not deter the diligence of the agents who investigated and arrested Sayoc.   

There might be no saving the ship when the captain plots a course into the iceberg. Even so, we must be careful not to attribute the attorney general’s lack of moral compass to the federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors who work in the trenches. They carry the burden of bringing justice to the murder, terrorism, child pornography and public corruption cases that cross their desks every day.    

If the Justice Department is to survive its current occupation, it will be thanks to its rank-and-file agents and prosecutors. Their dedication remains unchanged. In a time when the word “unprecedented” has become commonplace, there is comfort in knowing some things stay the same. 

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Los Angeles and Detroit. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1



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