Attorney General Bill Barr is engulfed in a political firestorm on Capitol Hill amid the fallout from the Justice Department’s decision to reduce its recommended sentence for Roger Stone.
Democrats are clamoring for Barr to testify and for the department’s decision to be investigated, arguing the move is the latest sign that Trump is feeling emboldened after Republicans acquitted him last week of abuse of power and obstructing Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Barr an “enabler” of Trump, adding “that’s a kind word.”
“It appears the attorney general of the United States and other political appointees at the Justice Department intervened to countermand the sentencing recommendation,” Schumer said.
The decision set off alarm bells around Washington given the context. Days after his Senate acquittal, Trump had removed two key impeachment witnesses from their positions, and had yanked the nomination of an individual involved in the Stone case.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the onus is on Barr to speak publicly about the Justice Department’s decision. So far, DOJ has maintained radio silence about what role the attorney general might have had in the push to reduce Stone’s sentence.
“There’s no way this happened without his direction,” Murphy said. “The attorney general has made it clear that his priority is to be a political agent of the president.”
Calls for Barr to testify began on Tuesday when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said he needed to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I request that you immediately schedule a hearing for Attorney General William Barr to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee so that the committee and the American people can understand the Justice Department’s decision,” Harris wrote in a letter to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the panel.
Graham has rejected the calls, saying he will not call Barr before the Senate panel specifically over the Stone decision.
But those demands escalated sharply Wednesday after Trump appeared to suggest that the Justice Department’s decision to ask for a lesser sentence was the result of Barr “taking charge” of the case.
“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump tweeted.
The comments poured fuel onto what was already a growing political scandal. The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Hill on Trump’s tweet.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Schumer’s No. 2, said Barr needed to answer questions about his “repeated intervention in Justice Department investigations, apparently to benefit the President.”
Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who is running for the party’s 2020 nomination, and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, both revived calls for Barr to resign. Warren called him a “lawless Attorney General,” while Blumenthal characterized Barr as Trump’s “henchman.”
Barr’s first summons to Capitol Hill appears to be a House Judiciary Committee hearing on March 31. That is more than a month after Judge Amy Berman Jackson is scheduled to sentence Stone on Feb. 20.
“In your tenure as Attorney General, you have engaged in a pattern of conduct in illegal matters relating to the president that raises significant concerns for this committee,” Democrats on the committee wrote in the letter to Barr.
Democrats said they will ask about the decision to recommend a lighter sentence for Stone, the decision to yank Jessie Liu’s Treasury nomination and how the Justice Department is vetting information from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, related to Ukraine.
The fallout over Stone is the latest scandal to rock Barr’s tenure as attorney general, renewing longstanding concerns about the nature of his relationship with the White House.
Barr’s broad views of executive authority span decades. As attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, Barr advised Bush to pardon six former Reagan administration officials, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, a figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The attorney general has been a perennial Democratic target since early last year when he was seen as having put a thumb on the scale for Trump at the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
After the nearly two-year probe came to an end in March, Mueller concluded the Trump campaign had not colluded with Russia’s 2016 election interference. The special counsel declined to reach a prosecutorial judgment about whether Trump had obstructed justice, however.
But Barr and the deputy attorney general supplied their own legal judgment, concluding the president had not obstructed justice. Barr’s decision to clear Trump of the obstruction allegation was widely disputed, including by more than 700 former federal prosecutors who signed a letter saying Trump would have been indicted if he weren’t in the White House.
Three Senate Democrats voted in 2019 with every Republican except Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to confirm Barr to be Trump’s attorney general: Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Doug Jones (Ala.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).
Jones, a former prosecutor, signaled Wednesday that he regretted supporting Barr’s nomination.
“I’m an old DOJ guy. I voted for Bill Barr in thinking that he would be a Department of Justice guy. I think that all of the pillars at the Department of Justice seem to be eroding in favor of the president,” Jones said.
He added about his vote for Barr that “if I had it to do over, looking in hindsight, I probably wouldn’t do it again.”
Stone was convicted in November of seven counts of obstructing and lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his efforts to provide the Trump campaign inside information about WikiLeaks in 2016.
The scandal over his sentencing started Tuesday when the Justice Department formally asked for “far less” than the seven to nine years federal prosecutors recommended less than 24 hours earlier.
Trump has denied that he asked for the Justice Department to ask for a lesser sentence for his former associate, though he called the initial recommendation “ridiculous.” He also insisted he had an “absolute right” to ask the Justice Department to interfere.
He claimed on Wednesday that his tweets criticizing the initial sentencing recommendation did not represent political interference and that Stone “was treated very badly.”
Republicans largely focused their already limited criticism on Trump, saying that he should not be publicly weighing in on active court cases.
“The president should not have gotten involved,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Asked about her concerns on the sentencing revisions, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) exclaimed, “I don’t like them!”
“I don’t think the president needed to jump into the middle of this in the first place. I think it’s just bad,” Murkowski added.
Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), a former Republican who left the party in 2019, publicly lashed out at Barr, saying he “represents a unique awfulness” amid “many terrible attorneys general in recent decades.”
“He wholly endorses the surveillance state, promotes executive supremacy, repeatedly undermines the Rule of Law,” Amash tweeted. “And clearly views his role as that of a political operative.”
John Kruzel and Morgan Chalfant contributed