Should Attorney General William Barr have gotten involved with a criminal case involving former Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone?
In November 2019, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign advisor Roger Stone was found guilty on seven counts of lying to Congress and witness tampering during a House investigation into potential Russian interference in the election.
Stone’s verdict carried a maximum of 50 years in prison, though federal prosecutors initially recommended seven to nine years. Then President Trump tweeted in response to the news, “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Later that same day, Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department asked the federal court to sentence Stone to “far less” than seven to nine years, without explicitly quantifying their recommendation.
Ultimately, Stone was sentenced to three years and four months in prison. Trump commuted the sentence mere days before the incarceration was set to officially begin, sparing Stone from any jail time whatsoever.
What the bill does
The BARR (Blocking Appointees from Refusing Recusal) Act would ban presidentially-appointed Justice Department officials from involvement in cases, lawsuits, or investigations involving that president, their relatives, or their campaign officials.
Most prominently, that would apply to the attorney general, whether Barr or any future attorney general. Career appointees at the Justice Department would still be able to participate in such matters, the idea being that they would have less of a conflict of interest than political appointees.
It was introduced in the Senate on June 1 as bill number S. 3851, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
What supporters say
Supporters argue that Barr’s involvement in the legal case of his boss’s friend and confidant was a violation of the Justice Department’s ostensible independence.
“Attorney General Barr’s interference in Roger Stone’s sentencing is not just unethical — it’s corrupt, plain and simple,” Sen. Warren said in a press release. “This bill would use Congress’ spending authority to protect the rule of law and prevent a corrupt Attorney General from protecting the President’s buddies when they commit crimes to benefit the President.”
The lowered sentencing recommendation “appears to show that you and other top DOJ officials intervened in a clearly political fashion to undermine the administration of justice at the President’s behest in order to protect a well-connected political ally who committed a ‘direct and brazen attack on the rule of law,’” Sen. Warren co-wrote with other Democratic senators in a letter to Barr. “And it reveals your unwillingness or inability to maintain the integrity of the DOJ and to uphold justice and the rule of law.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the involvement of political appointees in the Stone case was necessary, given the egregiousness of actions by career appointees. “The Department was shocked to see the sentencing recommendation [from federal prosecutors],” a Justice department official told CNN. “The Department believes the recommendation is extreme and excessive and is grossly disproportionate to Stone’s offenses.”
Opponents may also note that even had the bill hypothetically been law at the time of Stone’s sentencing, it might not have made a difference. Even if Barr hadn’t gotten involved with Stone’s case, and Stone was sentenced for the seven to nine years that federal prosecutors originally recommended — or perhaps even the maximum 50 years for which he was eligible — Trump likely would have commuted his sentence anyway.
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted six cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Odds of passage are low in the Republican-controlled chamber.