WASHINGTON – More than 1,100 former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials called on Attorney General William Barr on Sunday to step down after he intervened last week to lower the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for President Donald Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone.
They also urged current government employees to report any signs of unethical behavior at the Justice Department to the agency’s inspector general and to Congress.
“Each of us strongly condemns President Trump’s and Attorney General Barr’s interference in the fair administration of justice,” the former Justice Department lawyers, who came from across the political spectrum, wrote in an open letter Sunday. Those actions, they said “require Mr. Barr to resign.”
The sharp denunciation of Barr underlined the extent of the fallout over the case of Stone, capping a week that strained the attorney general’s relationship with his rank and file, and with the president himself.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
After prosecutors on Monday recommended a prison sentence of up to nine years for Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a congressional inquiry, Trump lashed out at federal law enforcement. Senior officials at the department, including Barr, overrode the recommendation the next day with a more lenient one, immediately prompting accusations of political interference, and the four lawyers on the Stone case abruptly withdrew in protest.
The Justice Department said the case had not been discussed with anyone at the White House, but that Trump congratulated Barr on his decision did little to dispel the perception of political influence. And as the president widened his attacks on law enforcement, Barr publicly reproached the president, saying that Trump’s statements undermined him as well the department.
“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” Barr said during a televised interview Thursday with ABC News.
In the days after the interview, Trump has been relatively muted. He said on Twitter that he had not asked Barr to “do anything in a criminal case.” As president, he added, he had “the legal right to do so” but had “so far chosen not to!”
But lawyers across the Justice Department continue to worry about political interference from the president despite public pushback by Barr, long considered a close ally of Trump’s.
The letter’s signatories included Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, and about 50 former U.S. attorneys. Protect Democracy, a nonprofit legal group, gathered the signatures from Justice Department alumni and said it would collect more.
In May, Protect Democracy gathered signatures for a letter that said the Mueller report presented enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice were that an option. At the close of his investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller declined to indicate whether Trump illegally obstructed justice, citing a decades-old department opinion that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. That letter was also critical of Barr.
Even as the lawyers condemned Barr on Sunday, they said they welcomed his rebuke of Trump and his assertions that law enforcement must be independent of politics.
But Barr’s “actions in doing the president’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words,” they said.
The letter comes days after some Democratic senators pressed for Barr to resign, and after the New York City Bar Association said that it had formally reported the attorney general’s behavior to the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Strikingly, the lawyers called upon current department employees to be on the lookout for future abuses and to be willing to bring oversight to the department.
“Be prepared to report future abuses to the inspector general, the Office of Professional Responsibility, and Congress,” they wrote, and “to refuse to carry out directives that are inconsistent with their oaths of office.”
Prosecutors who currently work at the department should withdraw from cases that involve abuses or political interference, the lawyers said.
As a last resort, they asked Justice Department employees “to resign and report publicly — in a manner consistent with professional ethics — to the American people the reasons for their resignation.”