Official Washington has been consumed over the past week with the drama at the Justice Department. Attorney General William Barr is increasingly embattled thanks to President Donald Trump’s heavy-handed approach to DOJ business, in which Barr has unsuccessfully urged Trump to stop meddling.
The scenes in a courtroom Thursday — when Trump ally Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison — heightened the drama. And they raised more questions about what in the world is happening inside Barr’s Justice Department.
Barr intervened last week to overrule career prosecutors’ recommended sentence of seven to nine years in prison for Stone — shortly after Trump tweeted his opposition to the recommended sentence for his longtime friend and political confidant.
That prompted the four prosecutors on the case to withdraw, and one of them to leave the government entirely. Then came a more watered-down recommendation, which was signed by the prosecutor now leading the charge for the Justice Department, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb.
But at Stone’s sentencing hearing Thursday, Crabb sounded a different tone. He repeatedly appeared to push the recommendation in the direction of the initial prosecutors’ harsher one, arguing for enhancements that the more recent memo suggested were unnecessary or unsubstantiated.
For instance, Crabb pushed for an enhancement because Stone’s obstruction of justice succeeded.
The latest sentencing recommendation, though, had argued that such an enhancement would be duplicative because “it is unclear to what extent the defendant’s obstructive conduct actually prejudiced the government at trial.” District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District of Columbia granted the enhancement.
In another instance, Crabb seemed to argue that the initial recommendation was still in effect.
He seemed to endorse the same technical logic prosecutors had used in generating their recommendation in the first sentencing memorandum. Asked by Jackson about the change in position, Crabb said, “The guidelines enhancement applies here for the reasons set forth in the original sentencing memorandum.” He did not elaborate.
“What is the government’s position today?” Jackson asked, emphasizing the word today. When Crabb said he had nothing more to offer, she said with a bit of exasperation, “OK, fine.”
Perhaps the most remarkable moment, though, came when the judge tried to reconcile Crabb’s performance with his name having been on the updated sentencing recommendation, which he didn’t seem to be pushing.
Jackson asked whether he had actually written the memo; Crabb again declined to elaborate on what has happened within the Justice Department.
The developments heighten suspicion about what’s going on behind the scenes in the Justice Department. Some suggested that Crabb was making a statement by reverting to the arguments in the first recommendation.
If that’s not the case, though, the fact that he did move in that direction suggests that this whole drama was somewhat pointless in the first place. If the Justice Department was just going to argue the same points from the first recommendation, why overrule the sentencing recommendation and make it look like Trump was dictating how his Justice Department prosecuted his ally?
Looming over all of it is Trump’s continued disregard for Barr’s request that he stop tweeting about these matters. Even as the sentencing hearing was getting started Thursday, Trump was tweeting about Stone and another case in which the Justice Department recently opted not to pursue charges — that of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.
Barr has said such tweets make it “impossible for me to do my job” and has put out word that he has considered resigning if it continues.
It has continued, and the scenes in the courtroom Thursday don’t exactly suggest an attorney general who has control of the situation.