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William Barr puts Justice Department prosecutors on notice

Attorney General William P. Barr went on the attack against Justice Department career prosecutors this week, comparing them to preschoolers and to accusing them of going rogue in trying to score political scalps. The broadside came during a speech to honor Constitution Day in which Mr. Barr also made a vehement defense of his conduct…

William Barr puts Justice Department prosecutors on notice

Attorney General William P. Barr went on the attack against Justice Department career prosecutors this week, comparing them to preschoolers and to accusing them of going rogue in trying to score political scalps.

The broadside came during a speech to honor Constitution Day in which Mr. Barr also made a vehement defense of his conduct as the country’s top cop and his absolute authority to make decisions about what cases move forward.

The speech quickly became a flash-point in the two-year battle between the attorney general and front-line prosecutors, who have bristled — and some even quit cases — as Mr. Barr and his top deputies inserted themselves into sensitive political investigations.

Both critics and supporters of the attorney general were shocked the friction erupted in such a public fashion in the speech late Wednesday night to students at Hillsdale College, a school with conservative ties.

“I never thought we would see a blow-up from him like this,” said Nick Akerman, a former assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal who called the speech “totally unprecedented.”

“There is no reason for him to go after the line prosecutors because he is doing whatever he wants regardless,” he said. “I don’t think this does more than confirm what we already know: that he is an arm of the Trump reelection campaign.”

Mr. Barr assailed prosecutors as part of the “permanent bureaucracy” and said they must follow the directives of politically-appointed leaders such as himself who, because they are nominated by a president and confirmed by the Senate, are accountable in the grand scheme of governance.

“Name one successful organization or institution where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct — there aren’t any,” he said. “Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency.”

The attorney general said he, not career prosecutors, has the final say in cases and he will not “blindly” submit to “whatever those subordinates want to do.”

“They do not have the political legitimacy to be the public face for tough decisions and they lack the political buy-in necessary to publicly defend those decisions,” Mr. Barr continued.

Mr. Akerman agreed that Mr. Barr does ultimately have the final authority when it comes to prosecutions, but argued that Mr. Barr has abused that power.

“I think ultimately those decisions rest with the attorney general of course, but you expect the attorney general to follow certain norms,” he said. “Barr has gone off the reservation with these norms. At the end, he has the authority to run the department like he sees fit and he’s politicized it.”

But former Attorney General Edwin Meese III said Mr. Barr is using his authority to clean up the department, which was dogged by accusations of political partisanship by Obama-era officials, including doctoring a secret surveillance warrant and opening an investigation into the Trump campaign in part based on Democratic opposition research on the Republican nominee.

Mr. Meese suspects Mr. Barr has made similar remarks privately to his prosecutors.

He said Mr. Barr’s speech was designed to reassure the public he’s working to fix problems that have tainted the department.

“You had a real cesspool that had to be corrected,” he said. “[Former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions started the path of cleaning up the Justice Department and I think Bill Barr is continuing that.”

Disagreements between politically appointed Justice Department officials and trial attorneys are nothing new. But earlier this year, two such spats quickly became public and then morphed into a political firestorm.

In February, all four federal prosecutors who worked on the case against longtime Trump associate Roger Stone abruptly withdrew after the department’s leadership reduced the recommended sentence of up to nine years in prison for obstructing a congressional probe and other crimes.

One of the Stone prosecutors later resigned from the Justice Department altogether.

Months later, Mr. Barr moved to end a three-year prosecution against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, prompting one of the prosecutors to remove himself from the case.

Mr. Barr has also angered federal prosecutors in Manhattan with the botched firing of former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. Mr. Barr pressured Mr. Berman to resign, but the prosecutor resisted. Mr. Trump ended up firing Mr. Berman, and he left office after Mr. Barr relented and named his deputy as his interim successor.

In the speech, Mr. Barr said he is the final authority in the department and is allowed to make those prosecutorial calls.

“What exactly am I interfering with?” Mr. Barr asked. “Under the law, all prosecutorial power is invested in the attorney general.”

He said some prosecutors seem to seek opportunities to “amass glory” by criminally charging high-profile people.

“I’d like to be able to say that we don’t see headhunting in the Department of Justice,” he said. “That would not be truthful. I see it every day.”

Front-line prosecutors who’ve served in multiple administrations disagree, viewing Mr. Barr as a temporary political appointee they will outlast. Those prosecutors say Mr. Barr’s heavy-handed approach has led to political interference in cases against President Trump’s close associates.

Democrats slammed Mr. Barr’s comments.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that has oversight authority over the Justice Department, called the attorney general “a disgrace.”

“As a former Department of Justice employee, I take personal offense to his demeaning comments about the skilled, dedicated public servants who work in our federal justice system,” Mr. Blumenthal, a former U.S. Attorney, said in a statement to The Washington Times. “Unlike Bill Barr, the line prosecutors, investigators, and federal agents I worked beside as U.S. Attorney — and know still — believe in equal justice under the law. A justice system free from political corruption is clearly not only a foreign concept to Bill Barr, but an anathema.”

Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who worked for President Obama, also blasted Mr. Barr’s remarks.

“Though dangerous, Barr is becoming increasingly absurd. 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,” he wrote in a tweet.

Mr. Holder himself has been accused of politicizing the Justice Department on grounds analogous to those now being aimed at Mr. Barr, including referring to himself as President Barack Obama’s “wing man.”

He also was criticized for partisan handling of cases on such matters as religious freedom, abortion clinic access, the “Fast and Furious” operation, voter-intimidation by Black activists, “sue and settle” environmental cases, and selective non-defense of duly-passed laws.

Anger at Mr. Barr pervaded Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday. But since the attorney general wasn’t present, lawmakers instead unloaded on FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was there to testify on threats to the homeland.

“We have seen increasing politicization of the Justice Department,” said Rep. Dina Titus, Nevada Democrat. “This has crossed a long-standing line. We don’t usually expect or see or tolerate this sort of thing from our nation’s law enforcement.

Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman, New Jersey Democrat, asked Mr. Wray to use his influence with Mr. Barr to “ask him to stop spreading such misinformation about voting integrity.”

Rep. Val Demmings was angered by Mr. Barr’s vision of power flowing from him through the rest of the department — and particularly his jab at rogue FBI agents. “Whose agents do you think you are,” the attorney general said in his remarks this week.

Ms. Demmings, Florida Democrat, asked Mr. Wray to respond.

“We, the FBI, work for the American people,” the bureau director said.

⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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Biden

Joe Biden: Justice Department has become ‘Department of Trump’

Joseph R. Biden said Wednesday his Justice Department wouldn’t automatically pursue charges against President Trump when he leaves office as the Democratic presidential nominee knocked the president for turning DOJ into the “Department of Trump.” “This has been the most corrupt administration in modern American history,” Mr. Biden said while campaigning in North Carolina. “The…

Joe Biden: Justice Department has become ‘Department of Trump’

Joseph R. Biden said Wednesday his Justice Department wouldn’t automatically pursue charges against President Trump when he leaves office as the Democratic presidential nominee knocked the president for turning DOJ into the “Department of Trump.”

“This has been the most corrupt administration in modern American history,” Mr. Biden said while campaigning in North Carolina. “The Justice Department has turned into the president’s private law firm.”

Mr. Biden referred to DOJ’s recent move to intervene in a defamation case involving a woman who claims Mr. Trump sexually assaulted her in the 1990s.

He said his Justice Department would be “totally independent of me.”

“I’m not going to pursue prosecuting anybody,” he said. “I’m going to do what the Justice Department says should be done and not politicize it.”

“It’s become the Department of Trump, and that’s wrong,” he said.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, Mr. Biden’s running mate, told NPR in July 2019 when she was running for president that she would want her Justice Department to pursue obstruction of justice charges against Mr. Trump if he didn’t get impeached.

“I believe that they would have no choice and that they should, yes,” Ms. Harris said.

Shortly after those remarks, former 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg said he would expect his DOJ to think for itself and that presidents shouldn’t be calling for their political opponents to be targeted.

The Democratic-led House did ultimately vote to impeach Mr. Trump in December, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his strong-arming Ukraine into digging up dirt on Mr. Biden.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted to acquit Mr. Trump earlier this year.

Mr. Biden’s comments mark an escalation in the Democrats’ strategy of making Mr. Barr’s tenure at the Justice Department an issue in the 2020 election.

Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday criticized Mr. Barr, saying removing him from the Justice Department is a reason to vote against Mr. Trump.

“To weaponize the Justice Department in the way that Barr has is inconsistent with his oath,” Mr. Holder said. “It’s another reason why we have to make sure Donald Trump is defeated in November and we have a new attorney general come January.”

Mr. Holder, a Democrat, served as President Barack Obama’s attorney general from 2009 to 2015 and worked with Mr. Biden, who was vice president.

“The department has to be restored,” Mr. Holder said. “There is an obvious morale problem that has to be dealt with and the department has to be righted.”

• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.

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Department

Justice Department unveils new FISA rules to limit surveillance of political candidates

The Justice Department on Tuesday unveiled new rules to limit the government surveillance of political candidates and those affiliated with their campaigns, a move to prevent future FBI surveillance abuses, which President Trump’s allies say occurred in the Russia election conspiracy investigation. Attorney General William P. Barr issued two memos outlining a host of stringent…

Justice Department unveils new FISA rules to limit surveillance of political candidates

The Justice Department on Tuesday unveiled new rules to limit the government surveillance of political candidates and those affiliated with their campaigns, a move to prevent future FBI surveillance abuses, which President Trump’s allies say occurred in the Russia election conspiracy investigation.

Attorney General William P. Barr issued two memos outlining a host of stringent new requirements for FBI and Justice Department officials dealing with sensitive political investigations.

Under the new rules, the FBI and Justice Department must discuss warning a political candidate, any member of their staff or advisers that they could be a target of foreign interference before seeking a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

If officials decide not to give a warning, the FBI director must outline in writing the reasons for keeping the warrant application quiet.

The new rules also require immediate notification of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) if any misstatements or omissions are discovered in a FISA application.

Mr. Barr also created an internal watchdog to audit the FBI’s compliance with FISA regulations. The unit, dubbed the Office of Internal Auditing, will help the FBI overcome gaps in its ability to monitor FISA applications before they are submitted to the court.

“FISA is a critical tool to ensuring the safety and security of Americans, particularly when it comes to fighting terrorism,” Mr. Barr said in a statement. “However, the American people must have confidence that the United States Government will exercise its surveillance authorities in a manner that protects the civil liberties of Americans, avoids interference in the political process, and complies with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

“What happened to the Trump presidential campaign and his subsequent administration after the president was duly elected by the American people must never happen again,” he continued.

The new rules would require the FBI to give politicians and campaign staff defensive briefings. Mr. Trump and his allies have long complained that FBI leadership never gave them a defensive briefing before agents wrongly surveilled campaign aide Carter Page, who was suspected of working with Russians conspiring to influence the 2016 election.

Mr. Page was never charged with a crime and former special counsel Robert Mueller did not uncover any evidence that he was working with Russia.

FBI documents unsealed earlier this month revealed that bureau leadership in 2015 sought to give Hillary Clinton’s campaign a defensive briefing before an FBI field office pursued a FISA warrant related to a threat posed to the campaign by a foreign government.

However, the Trump campaign was not given a defensive briefing when allegations that campaign officials may be conspiring with Russia first emerged. Instead, the FBI opened the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation, which eventually morphed into the Mueller probe.

The FBI did provide to the Trump campaign with a general briefing about generic foreign threats, but bureau officials did not mention specific concerns about Trump associates, including Mr. Page and Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s allies have also accused the FBI of using the briefing as a tool to gather more intelligence for their investigation.

The Office of Internal Monitoring will help prevent future bungling of the FISA applications like the one used to surveil Mr. Page.

Mr. Barr wrote in a memo that the new office will “ensure that rigorous and robust auditing, which is an essential ingredient to an effective compliance regime, is carried out.”

It will be headed by a senior FBI official.

The Justice Department inspector general last year criticized the FBI for a series of failures in its FISA applications to monitor Mr. Page, finding at least 17 errors or omissions.

In a scathing report, the inspector general said the FBI’s statements left “an inaccurate impression” and withheld potentially exculpatory information.

Last month, an FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to doctoring one of the Page warrant applications to falsely build the case against the campaign advisor.

In the wake of bungling the Page application, the FBI announced more than a dozen changes to the FISA process.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau is working diligently to follow the new protocols. He lauded the new reforms implemented by Mr. Barr.

“The additional reforms announced today, which we worked on closely with the Attorney General’s office, will build on the FBI’s efforts to bolster its compliance program,” he said in a statement.

“FISA is an indispensable tool that the FBI uses to protect our country from national security threats, and Americans can rest assured that the FBI remains dedicated to continuously strengthening our FISA compliance efforts and ensuring that our FISA authorities are exercised in a responsible manner,” he continued.

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Department

Justice Department says George Floyd death investigation is ‘a top priority’

The Justice Department said its investigation into the death of a Minneapolis man at the hands of police, setting off three nights of rioting in the city, is a “top priority.” “The Department of Justice has made the investigation a top priority and has assigned experienced prosecutors and FBI criminal investigators to the matter,” said…

Justice Department says George Floyd death investigation is ‘a top priority’

The Justice Department said its investigation into the death of a Minneapolis man at the hands of police, setting off three nights of rioting in the city, is a “top priority.”

“The Department of Justice has made the investigation a top priority and has assigned experienced prosecutors and FBI criminal investigators to the matter,” said U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald and FBI Special Agent in Charge Rainer Drolshagen in a joint statement on Thursday.

Mr. Drolshagen said the FBI is “following the path where the facts will lead us,” calling the investigation “swift, yet meticulous.”

The federal probe will examine whether four Minneapolis cops violated George Floyd’s civil rights. Mr. Floyd, 46, died Monday after a police officer kept his knee on his neck for several minutes while he cried out that he couldn’t breathe.

A camera captured the video.

Mr. Floyd was being taken into custody on suspicion of forgery.

The federal probe will look into whether the actions of the four Minneapolis cops involved in Mr. Floyd’s death violated his civil rights.

All four officers have been fired, but Mr. Floyd’s family members have demanded their arrests.

The Justice Department announcement came after President Trump tweeted that he asked for the investigation to be expedited.

Violent demonstrations continued through Thursday night, including the burning of a Minneapolis Police precinct and others. The demonstrations prompted the Minnesota governor to activate the national guard.

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