Trump’s allies have long called for a “cleaning out” of DOJ and FBI, aimed at career officials perceived as hostile to the president. Several of Trump’s top targets have been forced out, including former FBI Director James Comey, his former deputy Andrew McCabe, and former FBI agent Peter Strzok, all of whom worked on the Russia probe.
But the calls for a purge intensified this month after four career prosecutors recommended a sentence of at least 7 years in prison for Trump associate Roger Stone, who was convicted last year of making false statements to Congress, obstruction and witness intimidation.
All four of the Stone prosecutors quit the case after their sentencing recommendation, which followed federal guidelines, was overruled by Attorney General Bill Barr, and one resigned from DOJ altogether.
“It’s totally unclear to me why any members of the Mueller team need to remain in the Trump DOJ,” the pro-Trump conservative blogger Will Chamberlain wrote after news broke of the Stone sentencing recommendation. (Three of the four Stone prosecutors, Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed, and Jonathan Kravis, worked for Mueller.)
The MAGA punditry’s outsized influence over the president means their campaign against the so-called Mueller “holdovers” is likely not falling on deaf ears, especially given Trump’s fixation with what his defenders and detractors are saying about his administration in their frequent appearances on his favorite TV programs.
“I think that the White House understands that it has the support of the insurgent conservative punditry in this fight, because we see what the fight is,” said Schlicter, whose recent columns on the subject have run under headlines like “Time for Trump to Get His Godfather On” and “Burn Down the DOJ and Start Over.”
Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, tweets several times a day about alleged “deep state corruption” at the Justice Department and last week described Stone’s sentencing recommendation as “Mueller holdover extortion.” Trump retweeted Fitton’s accusations of corruption at DOJ and the need to “clean house” there nearly a dozen times on Wednesday morning alone.
Sam Nunberg, a GOP consultant and former Trump campaign adviser who was interviewed in the Mueller probe, suggested in an interview that the “Mueller team” should not handle any Trump-related matters. And GOP operative Arthur Schwartz, a close friend of Donald Trump Jr. who has been described as the eldest son’s “fixer,” said of the career officials in question: “I think they should all be investigated.” Schwartz was among the group of lawyers who celebrated the president’s Senate acquittal at the Trump hotel in D.C., along with his defense team.
At this point, it’s not clear who is echoing whom. Trump has lambasted the prosecutions of his associates—Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort—as spearheaded by “Mueller people,” and has publicly attacked the judge who oversaw several Mueller-related cases, including Stone’s.
“Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure? How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!” Trump tweeted last week.
Both the Russia and Clinton email server investigations were reviewed separately by DOJ’s inspector general, who found no evidence that political bias influenced the department’s handling of the probes.
But Attorney General Bill Barr has already launched reviews of the origins of the Russia investigation and the FBI’s handling of Flynn. But his intervention in the Stone case has bought him little reprieve from Trump, whose incessant tweeting on his former aide’s plight spurred Barr to rebuke the president in an extraordinary interview last week on ABC News.
Fitton, a regular guest on Fox News, declined to say in an interview how often he speaks to the White House. But he said his “guess” is that Trump is “hearing all sorts of voices” on this issue.
“This is a straightforward issue,” he said. “The president runs the Justice Department and there are a lot of people who don’t want the Justice Department to investigate Democrats. All of this noise is designed to make it difficult for the Justice Department to investigate Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and those implicated in the illegal spying of Donald Trump.”
Hillary Clinton was investigated and cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the FBI in 2016, and the vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, did not break any laws by sitting on a Ukrainian gas company’s board, according to the former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. The Justice Department’s independent Inspector General found more than a dozen errors or omissions in the FBI’s warrant to surveil a Trump campaign adviser, but concluded that the Russia probe was properly predicated and found no evidence that Trump himself was spied on.
To Trump and his allies, though, none of that is enough—any officials associated with the Russia and Mueller probes cannot be fair, they say, and should either be investigated, removed, or both.
“These were Mueller prosecutors, and the whole Mueller investigation was illegally set up based on a phony and now fully discredited Fake Dossier, lying and forging documents to the FISA Court, and many other things,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning, incorrectly claiming that a set of raw intelligence reports outlining Trump’s alleged ties to Russia commissioned by Democrats was used to open the FBI’s initial investigation (the inspector general found that the dossier was not used as the basis to open the probe).
“Everything having to do with this fraudulent investigation is badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out,” Trump wrote.
DOJ veterans say the outrage from the president and his allies reflects a misunderstanding of how the department works—supposed concerns over rogue line attorneys ring hollow given DOJ policies requiring sentencing recommendations to be reached after consultation with high-level leadership, said one former senior national security official.
In the Stone case, prosecutors consulted longtime Barr aide Timothy Shea, recently installed as the new U.S. Attorney in D.C., before submitting the sentencing recommendation. Despite reportedly disagreeing with the prosecutors, Shea did not tell Barr or Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen about the recommendation until after it was submitted to the court, according to the New York Times. Several conservative opinion writers, including the Federalist’s Sean Davis and the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel, accused the prosecutors of essentially going rogue.
But as the Wall Street Journal’s own reporting noted last week, prosecutors rarely diverge from the sentencing recommendations issued by the court Probation Office. And Stone did not strike a cooperation deal with the government that might have softened the prosecutors’ position.
John Dowd, a former Trump lawyer who remains in touch with the White House, characterized the line attorneys in the Stone case as “insubordinate,” and “the same crowd of prosecutors wedded to the Mueller agenda” who need to be “cleaned out” from DOJ.
“And Bill Barr is doing that,” Dowd said.
Pro-Trump commentators have also zeroed in on Brandon van Grack, a prosecutor who was on Mueller’s team and is still handling the Flynn case for the government.
“Why is Van Grack still on this case?” conservative commentator Mollie Hemingway tweeted on Feb. 12. The president’s defenders have accused the FBI of setting a perjury trap for the retired general, and Flynn is now seeking to withdraw his guilty plea on the grounds of alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Stone, meanwhile, is seeking a new trial altogether. But his complaint isn’t with the prosecutors—it’s with the foreperson of the jury that convicted him on all counts. The foreperson, Tomeka Hart, has since been identified as a one-time Democratic congressional candidate who was critical of Trump on social media. But the defense knew her identity throughout the pre-trial proceedings—where she disclosed her run for Congress—and didn’t challenge her fitness to serve on the jury.
Trump has targeted Hart following Fox News segments about her past criticism of the president. He tweeted on February 13 that she “had significant bias” and that “this is not looking good for the ‘Justice’ department,” and tagged Fox and Friends and Fox News. He also tagged Fox and Friends in a tweet about Hart days later, quoting commentator Andrew Napolitano saying “it’s obvious” Stone should get a new trial due to Hart’s “unambiguous bias.”
Stone is still set to be sentenced on Thursday, Judge Jackson said on Tuesday. But the execution of the sentence will be deferred until the motions for a new trial are resolved, and conservative blogger Mike Cernovich, citing concerns about Hart, told POLITICO that he planned to file to have all the papers related to the Stone jury selection unsealed.
Nunberg, the former Trump aide, noted that he had been questioned by Aaron Zelensky, and pointed to no evidence that the former Mueller team member exhibited any bias.
But for Nunberg — as for the others — mere suspicions were enough to argue for his dismissal.
“I personally liked Aaron,” he said. “I found him highly professional, very smart. They had facts, yes, but I believe that they had an agenda … They were trying to take down Trump.”
Josh Gerstein contributed reporting.