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The Hill: Political interference at the Justice Department puts our system of checks and balances in peril

Feb 21, 2020
Op-Ed

Fresh off his acquittal – when the United States Senate sent a clear message that President Trump is, in fact, above the law – the President is behaving exactly as we should expect.

So you could almost hold the president blameless when he proceeds with reckless abandon. Already, he has fired appointees in retaliation for their testimony under oath during the impeachment proceedings. Then, he intervened in the sentencing of political ally and longtime advisor Roger Stone, who was convicted of federal obstruction, lying and witness tampering charges. Hours after President Trump Twitter-blasted federal prosecutors for recommending seven to nine years in prison, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would overrule the recommendation and seek a “far less” sentence.

But no longer can we hold innocent the president’s enablers, from his MAGA-hat-wearing rally groupies to my colleagues in Congress who simply remain silent while our democratic system collapses. Our forefathers created three separate but coequal branches of government – the executive, legislative and judicial. And “nothing could be more destructive of our system of government …,” said Attorney General William Barr during his Senate confirmation hearings, “than any toleration of political interference with the enforcement of law.”

Yet that very attorney general, the nation’s lawyer, is now taking politically-motivated directives from the president over Twitter. And if there was any doubt the attorney general was personally involved in the decision to recommend a lighter sentence, the president publicly congratulated him for “taking charge” of the case against Stone.

When I was a prosecutor, I faced intimidation and threats that only strengthened my resolve to seek justice. I respect the four patriotic prosecutors who withdrew from the case following Attorney General Barr’s announcement, as well as the 2,000-plus former Justice Department employees who authored a public letter speaking out against the politicization. These are the types of principled men and women we want enforcing law and order in our communities – attorneys who are fair and independent. Who are beholden to case law and the Constitution, not a bully president.

Barr has since complained about the president’s tweets and reportedly threatened to quit if the interference continues. The president responded by calling himself the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer.” Attorney General Barr: You are the country’s attorney, not the president’s attorney. Act like it.

But more importantly, those who support the president’s policies but not his authoritarian conduct must stand up and speak out. When it comes to the basic principles of our Constitution, a line must be drawn.

What happens next? He already spent last week pardoning friends and felons whose misdeeds bear striking resemblance to his own (he once referred to the phone call in which former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell his Senate seat as, “a phone call where nothing happens.”) Is Roger Stone next?

The Department of Justice has a long history of being free from political influence and that is what has kept it strong. If we don’t have an independent system of law enforcement, all of our communities are at risk. Our system of checks and balances no longer exists and a dictatorship begins