In scathing remarks against his own staff, Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday that the Justice Department has recently acted “more like a trade association for federal prosecutors than the administrator of a fair system of justice” and equated some prosecutors to preschoolers and “headhunters.”
Too much deference is given to career prosecutors, rather than to politically appointed leaders who can be held accountable at the ballot box, he said in remarks likely to further strain relations between Barr and some of the Justice Department’s career prosecutors.
Barr did not mention any specific cases, but he has been criticized by current and former government lawyers for moving to abandon the prosecution of President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and seeking a less harsh sentence for Roger Stone, a former Trump campaign adviser. Career Justice Department lawyers quit the prosecution teams in both cases.
“The notion that line prosecutors should make the final decisions within the Department of Justice is completely wrong, and it is antithetical to the basic values underlying our system,” Barr said. Prosecutors too often become “headhunters, consumed with taking down their targets,” he said.
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“In case after case, we have advanced and defended hyperaggressive extensions of the criminal law. This is wrong, and we must stop doing it,” he said in a speech during Constitution Day events at Hillsdale College, a conservative, privately funded university in Michigan.
Barr said he is annoyed by the claim that political officials interfere in criminal prosecutions, given that all prosecutorial power is vested by law in the attorney general.
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Some career attorneys are not partisan, he said, but they are often less experienced than their supervisors.
“Name one successful organization where the lowest-level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct,” he said. “There aren’t any. Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it’s no way to run a federal agency.”
Barr did not mention Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation in his prepared remarks. During the speech, however, he noted that the Trump administration has sometimes been described as lawless even though, he said, it had a better record of wins in the Supreme Court than the Obama administration.
“Obama had some of the people who were in Mueller’s office writing their briefs in the Supreme Court, so maybe that explains something,” he said.
The Obama record of wins at the Supreme Court was the worst in six decades, but Trump has fared even worse, according to an analysis by legal scholars Lee Epstein and Eric Posner. But they note that the court has been steadily less deferential to each successive administration since President Ronald Reagan’s two terms.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.