Stone sentencing fallout caps off year of Barr-Nadler clashes

The Senate confirmed Attorney General William Barr one year ago. His relationship with the House committee chairman overseeing him has gone downhill ever since.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 13, 2020, 5:23 p.m.

The acrimonious, yearlong feud between House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Attorney General William Barr is flaring up again.

This week saw not one, but two flashpoints between the Justice Department and the House committee tasked with overseeing it. Nadler and committee Democrats have sent requests to Barr to explain an alleged back channel from Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to deliver the product of his Ukraine investigations to the Department of Justice. A day later, Nadler also pledged to “get to the bottom” of allegations that Barr leaned on federal prosecutors to reduce a sentencing recommendation for Trump confidant Roger Stone.

Barr has agreed to testify before the committee March 31 on the Stone affair. It will be the first time the attorney general has spoken before the House panel since taking the top spot at the department, despite repeated requests from Nadler.

One would struggle to find a more contentious relationship between an administration official and their committee chairman in Washington. It’s been a year since the Senate confirmed Barr—on Valentine's Day, no less—and the past 12 months have seen the two square off on some of the most high-profile administration controversies.

In the past, Nadler has been open about his opinion of Barr, calling him a “biased defender of the administration.” After the announcement that Barr would testify, Nadler hasn’t given up many details, however. When asked how he would characterize the attorney general’s relationship with the committee over the past year, Nadler told reporters “no particular way.”

Other Democratic members of the committee were willing to weigh in, however.

“Attorney General Barr is a complete and total disgrace,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a committee member and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told National Journal.

That enmity extends through the Democratic majority on the panel.

“Bill Barr, not the Department of Justice, but Bill Barr, would like to erase Robert Mueller and his report and make sure that anybody who dared to speak out about the truth of what was happening is punished,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

It’s the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election that kicked off Barr’s conflict with the House committee. After special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report to the Justice Department in March, Barr, a month into his tenure, gave a four-page summary to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees criticized by Nadler as having discrepancies.

In May, Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the report, but not before Nadler and House Judiciary Democrats, citing the panel's vote to allow staff lawyers to question him.

The friction escalated between Barr and Nadler, who accused Barr of “trying to blackmail” the committee.

“Given how dishonest he’s been since March 24th at the latest, I can understand why he is afraid of facing more effective examination,” Nadler told reporters at the time.

The committee held a hearing anyway, complete with an empty chair and Barr’s nameplate in front.

“If he does not provide this committee the information it demands, the respect it deserves, Mr. Barr’s accountability will come soon enough,” Nadler said at the hearing.

The panel voted along party lines in May to hold Barr in contempt for not producing unredacted Mueller-related documents.

Then, as now, Republicans on the committee have fought back against the panel’s actions against Barr, saying the majority was lashing out at Barr after the special counsel didn’t find that the president colluded with Russia. It’s Nadler, they say, who is stoking the conflict.

“I think the attorney general would love to be a partner with the Judiciary Committee, but the chairman and the Democrats on the committee have made that virtually impossible in light of all the hearings and the theatrics that they’ve been through for the last year,” Rep. Doug Collins, the outgoing ranking member on the committee, told National Journal on Wednesday.

On Monday, Nadler demanded in a letter that Barr testify about revelations that the DOJ was receiving information on Ukraine from Giuliani, with Nadler making direct claims to the attorney general’s independence.

"Any official relationship between Mr. Giuliani and the Department raises serious questions about conflicts of interest—both for the Department, generally, and for you, specifically," Nadler wrote in the letter.

Nadler described the arrangement as a back channel for political dirt obtained by Giuliani, who has been conducting his own investigation into the Bidens.

Nadler went on to cite claims against Barr made by former Giuliani aide Lev Parnas related to the Ukraine scandal, that Barr was “basically on the team.”

“Whether or not you are in league with Mr. Giuliani and his associates, DOJ guidelines and regulations exist to protect you and the Department from even the appearance of a conflict of interest or any impropriety,” Nadler said in the letter.

Then came Tuesday and Wednesday, when the Justice Department issued a new, lower sentencing recommendation for Stone for his convictions for lying to Congress and witness tampering. The move overruled career prosecutors, who had requested a 7- to 9-year sentence. All four prosecutors resigned from the case.

Trump congratulated Barr in a Wednesday tweet for “taking control of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not even have been brought.”

Barr, who has largely been silent on many of the clashes with Judiciary, spoke to ABC News on Thursday about the Stone controversy, defending his decision to lower the sentencing recommendation and saying he did so before Trump’s tweet calling it a “miscarriage of justice.”

“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody ... whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the president,” Barr said, according to ABC News. “I’m gonna do what I think is right. And you know … I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”

The Judiciary Committee may also be prepping for hearings in the run-up to Barr’s March 31 testimony, in which Democrats will also ask about the Giuliani controversy.

Jayapal said that she doesn't know exactly what committee action will look like, but she thinks the panel wants to hold hearings around the polarization of the Justice Department leading up to Barr’s appearance.

“At this point I believe that the attacks of the rule of law constitute a public emergency,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a fellow committee member, told National Journal. “This goes right to the heart of whether we will be a constitutional democracy or a banana republic, so the information I’m interested in is about the integrity of criminal prosecutions and the insulation of line prosecutors from political interference by the White House.”

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