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DOJ Veterans Worry Department's Norms Are Broken

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This month, the Justice Department celebrates its 150th anniversary. But thousands of veterans of the department aren't really feeling the love these days. Instead, they worry President Trump has demolished the norms that were supposed to insulate prosecutions from politics. At the center of that debate is Attorney General Bill Barr. He testifies this week on Capitol Hill. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The modern history of the Justice Department is a reaction to the chaos in 1973. President Richard Nixon was staring down the Watergate investigation that would eventually lead to his downfall.

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RICHARD NIXON: I want you to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that during my term as president, justice will be pursued fairly, fully and impartially.

JOHNSON: In May, he named a new attorney general, Elliot Richardson.

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NIXON: A man of unimpeachable integrity and rigorously high principle.

JOHNSON: You can see where this is heading, right? At his confirmation hearing to run the Justice Department, Richardson pledged to guarantee the independence of the Watergate probe. Richardson named a special prosecutor, just as he had promised Congress. But five months later, the White House moved to tamper with the prosecutor, and Richardson quit. He explained his decision to Justice workers who gathered to give him a standing ovation.

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ELLIOT RICHARDSON: At stake in the final analysis is the very integrity of the governmental processes I came to the Department of Justice to help restore.

JOHNSON: After that debacle nearly 50 years ago, Republicans and Democrats came together to agree on some bright lines at Justice. Presidents wouldn't use the Justice Department to go after their enemies or reward their friends. Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice explains.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: There was this idea that we were all better off if there was a real independence between the prosecutors and the president. That wasn't a law. It was, however, a set of standards agreed to by Republican and Democratic presidents. Donald Trump has put those standards in the shredder.

JOHNSON: Critics point to three main examples - one, the decision to abandon the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn; two, the early prison release for former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; and three, overturning a punishment recommendation for Trump's longtime adviser Roger Stone. The president eventually swept away Stone's prison sentence altogether. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey says the current attorney general was correct to review whether the Stone case was handled fairly.

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MICHAEL MUKASEY: In a highly publicized and politically fraught case, it was not only proper but also advisable for the attorney general to assure that the government sentencing recommendations not promote that unworthy end.

JOHNSON: Mukasey says that Justice is lucky to have Bill Barr in charge at a difficult time. But thousands of Justice Department veterans have looked at those same examples and called for Attorney General Barr to resign or face investigation himself. They say those cases have damaged the department and its reputation.

BILL WELD: It is depressing.

JOHNSON: That's Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts. Early in his career, Weld led the criminal division at Justice under Republican President Reagan. More recently, he ran for president this year against Donald Trump. Weld thinks Justice is supposed to operate free from politics. Instead, he says, it's now hostage to the president's tweets.

WELD: Let's be honest. He despises the whole idea of the rule of law. He despises the notion that you do justice without fear or favor. He's happier if he thinks the fix is in.

JOHNSON: Last month, Attorney General Barr told NPR he's doing his job, not systematically protecting the president. But the president's tweets appear to direct the Justice Department to target his enemies.

JACK GOLDSMITH: It does look like something untoward is going on in the Justice Department. There's no doubt about that.

JOHNSON: Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith says Trump's public comments complicate matters for Bill Barr.

GOLDSMITH: The problem is that he seems to be acting as the bagman for the president who has in - been attacking these prosecutions for years. And whether there's the reality of carrying the president's water, there's clearly the appearance of it, and it has a terrible impact, I think, on the Justice Department's legitimacy and everything it does.

JOHNSON: Goldsmith and other legal experts are starting to think about what should happen next in order to shore up public confidence in the Justice Department. Goldsmith says Congress could make clear conflict of interest and obstruction of justice laws apply to the president. Lawmakers could put constraints on some of the corrupt uses of the pardon power and declare a president can't pardon himself. Some members of Congress and public interest groups have proposed legislation that would limit contacts between the Justice Department and the White House. But former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick is wary about that.

JAMIE GORELICK: I personally don't like most of the legislative ideas that have been bandied about for addressing alleged political influence at the department.

JOHNSON: There are times, she says, when Justice Department leaders need to be in touch with the White House in cases that involve international officials or the economy. In the end, the heavy work to shore up confidence in the Justice Department's independence may need to come from the next president and the next attorney general. Again, Jack Goldsmith.

GOLDSMITH: In the past, the best reforms of the executive branch to make sure it acts with integrity have come from within the executive branch.

JOHNSON: That's what happened after Watergate when leaders issued new rules of the road to restore faith in the rule of law. Back then, people needed a reason to trust the actions of the Justice Department and have confidence that politics played no role in prosecutions.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.