For much of his presidency, Donald Trump has cast the Justice Department as the enemy within.
He has regularly called out federal prosecutors and FBI agents as traitors — or worse. That scorched-earth campaign has now been joined by an increasingly unrestrained full partner in the attorney general.
Rather than defend the cadre of career lawyers and investigators under his command, William Barr launched an extraordinary public rebuke late Wednesday night that drew parallels to the recriminations leveled against the institution by his boss, the president.
In a speech at a local college, marking a celebration of the Constitution, Barr alternately referred to some of his own prosecutors as petulant pre-schoolers and “headhunters,” fixated on taking out political targets while bristling under the supervision of political appointees.
Already confronted with internal uprisings from prosecutors who have objected to Barr’s intervention in criminal cases on the side of the president and his allies, the attorney general’s remarks were prompting strong push back from Justice veterans and threatened to further tear at the core of the department.
Jody Hunt, who most recently served as chief of Justice’s Civil Division under Barr and chief of staff to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, rejected the attorney general’s characterizations.
“Not accurate to suggest that career officials are less experienced than political appointees,” Hunt tweeted soon after the attorney general’s Hillsdale address. “Many supervisors are career officials, who often have more experience than politicals. And the career officials generally work hard to apply principled positions across administrations.”
Mary Lee Warren, a former Justice official who served under Barr during his first stint as attorney general in the administration of George H.W. Bush, said his remarks “seem a great change from the Attorney General Barr that I knew.”
Warren said it was an “insult” to suggest that the agency’s career prosecutors “would do other than what the Constitution requires.”
“What upset me most was (Barr’s) suggestion that line prosecutors were charging cases for perhaps the wrong reasons, and they should follow the lead of their U.S. attorney or higher ups,” said Warren, who served under five presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. “First of all, every prosecutor that I have ever known has investigated and charged the case solely based on the evidence and the law as it applies, across the board.”
Prosecutors as ‘headhunters’
Barr’s strong defense of Trump’s most politically charged interests are nothing new.
Soon after taking office in 2019, Barr unleashed a firestorm when he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice following a nearly two-year investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election despite damning findings by Justice special counsel Robert Mueller.
Last fall, in a speech before the conservative Federalist Society, he accused the president’s political opponents of pursuing a “no-holds-barred resistance” meant to “sabotage” Trump’s presidency.
And this year, Barr has overruled line prosecutors by recommending a lighter sentence for Trump political adviser Roger Stone, while he has also sought to drop the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The intervention in both cases prompted the withdrawal of Justice lawyers assigned to the prosecutions.
But Barr’s Wednesday night address at Hillsdale, appeared to stake out an even more aggressive position against some in his own department.
“Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,” Barr said. “Smart, ambitious lawyers have sought to amass glory by prosecuting prominent public figures since the Roman Republic. It is utterly unsurprising that prosecutors continue to do so today to the extent the Justice Department’s leaders will permit it. As long as I am attorney general, we will not.”
The attorney general, however, did not stop there. During a question-and-answer session following the speech, he turned up the volume on a variety of topics that have dogged the administration and Trump’s re-election campaign, notably the White House response to the deadly pandemic.
At one point, he compared the virus-related quarantine orders with slavery.
“Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said.
Underscoring his boss’ attacks on science’s role in the pandemic response, Barr said to the applause of the conservative audience: “The person in the white coat is not the grand seer who can come up with the right decisions for society. A free people makes its determination through its elected representatives.”
Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, said the attorney general’s withering assessment of some of his own prosecutors was “exactly right.”
In a Thursday interview with Fox News, Meadows said the attorney general’s assertion that prosecutors were sometimes driven by political considerations is “what we all hate about our federal government.”
Yet Barr’s remarks were taking a toll on many Justice Department veterans spanning Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Barr is becoming increasingly absurd,” former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted Thursday. “When I was at DOJ – regardless of my ultimate authority – I saw the career staff as trusted colleagues, not pre-schoolers. To my friends at DOJ, know that this nation values and supports you. I do.”
William Yeomans, a former Justice official who served under five presidents, said he had “never heard an attorney general criticize DOJ attorneys so categorically.”
“The attorney general really needs to avoid politicizing enforcement of the law and even to avoid the appearance of politicizing the enforcement of the law,” he said. “Exercising the prosecutorial authority responsibly demands that.”
Bruce Udolf, a former federal prosecutor who served as an associate independent counsel in the Clinton Whitewater investigation, called Barr’s speech “another troubling, unprecedented event in unprecedented administration.”
“When he referred to line prosecutors as pre-schoolers, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes you need mature students to speak up and show the adults the right way,” Udolf said. “Part of the attorney general’s job is provide an example of moral rectitude, but that’s exactly what this attorney general has not done.”