Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

Stone Debacle Takes Fears About Trump Influencing Mueller Probe To Next Level

Aq673r7f5yaesf0z5cmt

Reports that he was grumbling behind the scenes about firing Mueller were A1 news. Tweets where he railed against his attorney general for not being involved in it earned wall-to-wall TV coverage. The prime question for any top DOJ official who was testifying in front of Congress was whether he or she was was exerting inappropriate influence on that investigation at Trump’s behest. Mueller’s report concluded that Trump sure did try to influence the probe, but was largely stymied due to his incompetence and the unwillingness of those who at the time could execute those demands.

The last 24 hours took those old fears to a new level. Not only have political appointees at the Justice Department overruled prosecutorial decisions of the career attorneys working on cases against the President’s allies, the President is publicly bragging about that intervention.

In doing do, he’s fanning the same sort of inflammatory, anti-DOJ rhetoric that was the source of much heartburn before Mueller formally closed his investigation. And, to make the circle complete, some of the prosecutors he’s publicly attacking are alums of Mueller’s team, and the cases where their decisions are being overruled are prosecutions that were started by Mueller’s investigation.

In some ways, Trump’s tweets aren’t that different from his constant public tirades of 2017, 2018 and 2019. But what’s different now is that they’re being accompanied by actions from top DOJ officials to steer the cases in question in a more Trump-friendly direction.

The most obvious was the about-face the Justice Department did in the Roger Stone prosecution, where in the span of a day Main Justice significantly scaled back the sentencing recommendation it was proposing for the longtime Trump confidant. The four line prosecutors working on the case quit it after the reversal, apparently in protest of it. Two of them were veterans of Mueller’s team, and Trump himself cited his gripe with Mueller when he went after those prosecutors on Twitter

.

On the heels of an NBC report alleging that Attorney General Barr was directly involved in walking back the sentencing recommendation, a Trump tweet seemed to confirm that report while cheering Barr on for “taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”

What caught less attention was the more subtle shifts made in a sentencing document filed in the Michael Flynn case last month. According to the same NBC News report, that too was the result of a intervention by top officials at the DOJ. The softened memo was filed the day after a Barr ally took over the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C., which has led the Stone and Flynn prosecutions since Mueller stepped down. The ally, Timothy Shea, was able to step into the post because the Trump administration planned to move his predecessor, U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu to the Treasury Department (amid the chaos of Tuesday night, Axios broke the news that Trump had pulled Liu’s nomination.)

The shift in Flynn’s case was not as dramatic as how Stone’s unfolded, and there are other signs that the U.S. attorney’s office, under Shea’s leadership, still plans on fighting Flynn’s antics aggressively.

The Justice Department is vehemently denying that it had discussed the moves in the Stone case with the White House, and claimed that had not been taking cues from Trump’s public criticisms. One DOJ official reportedly claimed the President’s tweets were merely an “inconvenient coincidence.”

As former DOJ officials told me yesterday, the mere appearance of a Trump influence on the cases is even more reason to follow the rules and let the career officials lead the way.

Back during his confirmation hearing, Barr didn’t rule out that he might override prosecutorial decisions sought by Mueller’s investigation. But he noted that, due to the special counsel regulations, he would be required to notify Congress if he did.

Now that the special counsel probe is over, he’s under no such mandate when it comes to overruling the decisions of career prosecutors — including, ironically, decisions stemming from Mueller cases made by Mueller alums. So we’re stuck reading Trump’s Twitter feed instead.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately said that the signatory of a prosecutor from Mueller’s probe was missing from a sentencing memo filed late last month in the Flynn case. The prosecutor, Brandon van Grack, was signed on to the sentencing memo, but was missing from government filings submitted in the case after the sentencing memo.

About The Author

Tierney_profile2019

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.