The New York Times reported Sunday that the difficulties at the Justice Department began long before the Roger Stone incident from the past few weeks.
In the past weeks, prosecutors in the Stone case recommended seven to nine years for his sentence. Barr intervened and rewrote a sentencing memo, four lawyers in the case resigned, and even the prosecutor that replaced them ignored the new sentencing memo. Ultimately, the judge in the case gave Stone just over three years in prison, which President Donald Trump also opposes.
"A new boss, Timothy Shea, had just arrived and had told them on his first day that he wanted a more lenient recommendation for Mr. Stone, and he pushed back hard when they objected, according to two people briefed on the dispute," reported the Times. "They grew suspicious that Mr. Shea was helping his longtime friend and boss, Attorney General William P. Barr, soften the sentencing request to please the president."
One of the prosecutors for Stone had an awkward encounter with Shea's chief of staff, David Metcalf, who clapped his hand on Aaron S.J. Zelinsky's shoulder. A "terse and sharp verbal exchange" followed.
"The tensions between the office, the Justice Department, and the White House date back further than the tumult in the Stone case. They have been simmering since at least last summer, when the office's investigation of Andrew G. McCabe, a former top FBI. official whom the president had long targeted, began to fall apart," said the Times.
Shea's predecessor, Jessie Liu, was a Trump appointee in 2017, spoke highly of a case against McCabe, even though prosecutors said they couldn't win a conviction. When a second team was brought in and couldn't deliver a grand jury indictment, Liu's relationship with Barr went downhill. She was gone shortly after.
"The McCabe case had always been politically charged: Investigators were scrutinizing an accomplished former top law enforcement official whom the president had repeatedly attacked for his deep involvement in the Russia investigation," the Times explained. "The inquiry focused on whether he misled internal investigators examining the source of disclosures of sensitive information in a Wall Street Journal article."
The case eventually crumbled. Two main prosecutors believed they couldn't get a jury to convict McCabe, blaming, in part, Trump's relentless attacks on Twitter that would have poisoned any possible jury pool.
Prosecutors weren't happy, and a chain reaction began that led to the crisis today. "Prosecutors in the office began to worry that Mr. Barr was intervening in sensitive cases for political reasons even as he has publicly pushed back against Mr. Trump, a rebuke the president has ignored," wrote the Times.
Liu then was forced into a difficult conversation with DOJ officials. She then began looking for other jobs, including a top Treasury Department post. But her departure created more problems in the department. She emailed her office, saying that she'd remain at the DOJ until she was confirmed by the Senate. Barr, however, shoved her out early.
When Shea took over the office, Barr assigned outside prosecutors to examine the possibilities of investigating and prosecuting Trump's political rivals.
The string of events "suggests undue meddling by higher-ups at the Justice Department or elsewhere," said former US attorney Channing Phillips.
By the time the Stone incident happened, things had exploded. Barr told Trump via ABC News that he wished Trump wasn't making things worse with his tweets and essentially told him to lay off and let him handle the DOJ.
"Whether the storm has passed remains to be seen. The reviews of the Flynn case and others are continuing. And hours after Mr. Stone was sentenced, the president called again for his exoneration," the Times closed.