1,600 former Justice Department lawyers accuse Barr of using DOJ to help Trump in election

WASHINGTON – Former Justice Department attorneys expressed concerns Thursday that Attorney General William Barr is using the power of the agency to help President Donald Trump win reelection, citing statements Barr had made about mail-in ballots and the politically fraught inquiry into the Russia investigation.

“We fear that Attorney General Barr intends to use the DOJ’s vast law enforcement powers to undermine our most fundamental democratic value: free and fair elections,” according to an open letter signed by about 1,600 former Justice Department employees.

Barr has echoed the president’s attacks on mail-in ballots as more states have allowed voting by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“People are trying to change the rules to this, to this methodology – which, as a matter of logic, is very open to fraud and coercion – is reckless and dangerous and people are playing with fire,” the attorney general said in an interview with CNN last month.

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Last week, the Justice Department announced an investigation into nine discarded mail-in ballots reportedly recovered from a county elections office in northeast Pennsylvania. Seven of the nine ballots had been cast for the president, who has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that massive fraud involving mail-in ballots is underway. The announcement, which did not suggest the type of “out-of-control” fraud the president has claimed, was “premature and improper” and gave the White House and the Trump campaign a talking point to discredit mail-in voting, the letter said.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on September 9, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois.

The Justice Department has not responded to a request for comment.

Intelligence officials have said they have “not seen” coordinated efforts to manipulate mail-in balloting. FBI Director Chris Wray also told a Senate panel that the bureau has “not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”

The letter also accused Barr of using the Justice Department to discredit the Russia investigation, which cast a dark cloud over much of Trump’s presidency and led to the indictment of half a dozen former associates and campaign aides. Barr has tapped a federal prosecutor to investigate the origins of the probe. The investigation by Connecticut federal prosecutor John Durham has led to a criminal charge against a former Justice Department lawyer who pleaded guilty to falsifying an email investigators used to justify continued surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

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Barr has previously told Fox News that there would be more significant developments before the November presidential election.

The letter said there is no justification in releasing findings before the election.

“Such a blatant politicization and abuse of federal law enforcement power risks immense and lasting harm to our democracy and to the integrity and reputation of the DOJ,” the letter said. “Given Attorney General Barr’s demonstrated willingness to use the Department to help President Trump politically, the media and the public should view any election-related activity by the DOJ – including any announcement or findings related to the Durham investigation – with appropriate skepticism.”

The attorney general has publicly attacked the Russia investigation, telling Fox News it was launched without basis to “sabotage the presidency.” Barr did not offer evidence to prove his assertion. 

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The Justice Department’s inspector general has found that the FBI had legitimate basis to open an investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016. Special counsel Robert Mueller took over the probe in 2017. The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, which launched its own Russia investigation has reaffirmed findings by Mueller’s team that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race and that members of the Trump campaign were eager to take advantage of that effort.

The letter also called out Barr over his recent remarks calling career Justice Department attorneys “headhunters” who have become overly aggressive in pursuing criminal cases. 

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Career prosecutors, or Justice Department attorneys who aren’t politically appointed, “are generally part of the permanent bureaucracy,” Barr said during a recent speech at Hillsdale College in which he defended his involvement in criminal cases. “They do not have the political legitimacy to be the public face of tough decisions and they lack the political buy-in necessary to publicly defend those decisions.”

In the past year, Barr has overruled line prosecutors by recommending a lighter sentence for Trump political adviser Roger Stone, while he has also sought to drop the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“Attorney General Barr’s comments display a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of career prosecutors and why many of them have openly resisted his interventions on President Trump’s behalf,” the letter said. “While it is of course true that the DOJ is managed by its political leaders, when those leaders violate their oath to faithfully execute the law, the career staff is obligated by their own oaths of office to uphold the principle of equal justice under law.”

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Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor and one of letter’s signatories, said Barr’s actions are “very serious breaches” of the Justice Department’s traditional role as an apolitical institution. 

“But of particular concern to me is the threatened Durham Investigation. That the Attorney General has gone so out of his way to designate a hand-picked prosecutor to engage in an amazingly unusual investigation which seems both in its subject matter and even more so in its apparent timing intentionally designed to affect a national presidential election is breathtaking in its impropriety,” Cotter said.

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