In an Oct. 23 letter, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; and Kamala Harris, D-California, asked Attorney General Bill Barr to explain how numerous reports of political considerations seeping into the highest levels of Justice Department decision-making square with established department policy against political interference in federal law enforcement decisions.
Those reports paint a picture of a department that grants the White House and the president’s political allies special access to top law enforcement officials working on cases of interest. There are also questions about the attorney general’s personal involvement in events at the center of an intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint, which sparked public outrage and an impeachment inquiry into the president.
“In light of the torrent of news reports calling into question the Department of Justice’s… independence from political bias and pressure, we write to inquire about the status of the department’s policy of limiting communications between DOJ personnel and representatives of the White House regarding pending or contemplated criminal and civil matters,” the senators wrote. “The department has long recognized that its own judgments must be impartial and insulated from political influence, and that its investigatory and prosecutorial powers must be exercised free from partisan considerations. To those ends, the department has long maintained policies restricting communications between the White House and department officials relating to pending or contemplated criminal and civil investigations or cases.”
Among the many concerns the senators raise is Barr’s involvement in the July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky.
“In the memorandum transcript of the July 25 call between President Trump and President Zelinskyy of Ukraine, President Trump explicitly references you a number of times, and says that he will direct you to contact the president of Ukraine to follow up on investigations of American citizens and political opponents,” wrote the senators. “President Trump has openly and publicly expressed a desire for such investigations, and his support for such investigations taking place. Any action you or your department have taken in response to a directive by the president on these matters raises serious concerns and highlights the precise reason for the need to maintain DOJ independence from political interference.”
Restrictions against political interference in department investigations and prosecutions were first formally imposed in 1978 by Attorney General Griffin Bell following the Watergate scandal. The Trump administration appeared to reaffirm existing Department guidance in 2017. Under former White House Counsel Donald McGahn, the Trump White House also issued its own contacts policy, restricting White House communications with department personnel regarding ongoing or contemplated cases or investigations. Nothing suggests that guidance has been withdrawn.
Whitehouse, Blumenthal, Harris and Coons are cosponsoring the Security from Political Interference in Justice Act to increase transparency in the relationship between the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House and prevent political interference in law enforcement decisions. The bill would impose important reporting requirements for contacts between the Justice Department and White House pertaining to specific cases or investigations. A nearly identical measure drew broad bipartisan support in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007.
The full text of the senators’ letter is available at bit.ly/3605iCS.