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OpinionEditorial

After SDNY debacle, Barr is losing trust

Attorney General William Barr on April 1, 2020.

Attorney General William Barr on April 1, 2020. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

Attorney General William Barr doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to undermine the Justice Department’s independence to protect President Donald Trump from scrutiny. 

In his latest effort, the tumultuous removal last weekend of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Barr lied in saying that Berman had agreed to step down. Barr then failed to provide a reason why, less than 150 days before a presidential election, he urgently needed to remove a competent prosecutor, ignore the rules of succession and put a longtime friend in the post.

Barr’s actions follow his upending the independence of federal prosecutors in Washington, intended to undermine the convictions of Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political operative. A former top attorney in Washington is expected to tell a House hearing Wednesday that Justice Department officials manipulated an official sentencing recommendation in an attempt to get Stone special treatment. Previously, Barr deliberately misled the nation about the results of the Mueller report, and he is now conducting a vendetta against federal law enforcement officials who began the probe of candidate Trump’s contacts with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign. Those examples, and Barr’s bizarre walk through Lafayette Park just before unidentified and heavily armed federal agents broke up a peaceful protest outside the White House so the president could stage a photo op would qualify him as one of the worst Justice Department leaders since Watergate.

There is enough smoke here to suspect a raging fire of conflicts.

Among the investigations the White House could be worried about is a probe of Halkbank, the Turkish state bank, for violation of the U.S. sanctions on transactions with Iran. The move on Berman came just days after a new book by John Bolton, a former National Security Adviser, reveals that Trump promised Turkey’s president he would stop the investigation. Or it could be an investigation of Rudy Giuliani, the former head of SDNY and a personal lawyer to Trump. Giuliani works free of charge for Trump but earns a living representing foreign clients through his security firm who want access to the administration, most notably Ukraine. Perhaps it’s the SDNY’s effort to examine the dealings of Deutsche Bank, which has funded Trump’s business transactions.

Sen. Chuck Schumer said he would block Barr’s preferred candidate to replace Berman. Jay Clayton, who heads the Securities and Exchange Commission and has no prosecutorial experience, but golfs with Trump. Instead, Audrey Strauss, the highly regarded career prosecutor now in charge of the SDNY, should remain in place.

Congress needs to do more to stop Barr from destroying the Justice Department. The details of investigations cannot be disclosed, but the Senate and House judiciary committees should require Barr, Berman and anyone else with information about interference with the SDNY to testify. We need an attorney general whose commitment to the integrity of our justice system is beyond question.

— The editorial board

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