Attorney General Bill Barr rightly and understandably rebuked government by presidential tweet in a notable ABC News interview on Thursday.
The attorney general said that President Trump was making his job “impossible” by constantly commenting on an ongoing criminal case, and one involving Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone.
The latest Trump melodrama involves the DOJ’s sentencing recommendation in the Stone case. On Monday, prosecutors recommended a harsh seven-to-nine-year sentence after Stone’s conviction for lying to Congress and obstructing justice.
There is often an equity issue in who gets caught up in special-counsel probes — and nailed to the wall for offenses that others get away with — and who does not. In the case of Stone, Robert Mueller had a particular interest in the gadfly as a possible instrument of collusion with the Russians and, though that obviously didn’t pan out, threw the book at him for his dishonesty and shady maneuverings. There is no doubt that Stone is guilty of what he’s accused of — indeed, since he committed some of the offenses in writing, it is simply a matter of the record.
The question is how he should be punished. The prosecutors who have been running the case out of the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia since Mueller closed up shop went with the maximum recommendation. The sentencing guidelines add significant jail time if the offender has threatened a witness, which Stone — living out his bizarre fantasy life as a protagonist in the latter-day Watergate — did, although the subject of the threats (Stone confederate Randy Credico, whose dog was also threatened) says he didn’t take them seriously.
The recommendation was firmly within Justice Department guidelines, and yet was still excessive, treating Stone as if he were a mobster or gangbanger instead of a kooky 67-year-old with no history of violent crime. The recommendation also apparently wasn’t what Bill Barr, by his own account, had expected. In his ABC interview, the attorney general said he had already decided to revise the recommendation when Trump began tweeting his outrage at the handling of the case, creating the inevitable impression that the president had intervened in a criminal matter to help a friend.
Trump’s tweets aren’t very careful as a general matter, but the subcategory of tweets about pending investigations and cases is particularly problematic. This isn’t the first time that Trump has unwisely commented on such matters, apparently oblivious that his words now carry much more weight than they did when he was the host of Celebrity Apprentice.
Barr’s harsh words about the tweets are welcome. One can only hope that the president heeds them, although nothing has been able to get between his thumbs and his Twitter account to this point. Barr is an able and experienced public servant who deserves better, and so — needless to say — does the reputation of our system of justice.