The Morning Dispatch: Roger Stone, the DoJ and the Rule of Law

Plus, a Wisconsin House primary provides a glimpse at the modern GOP.

Happy Thursday! A plane, a train, and an automobile officially have all your Morning Dispatchers back together again in the office after a week apart. Expect lots of rediscovered synergies in the days ahead.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Former White House chief of staff John Kelly unloaded on his former boss during a speech at Drew University in New Jersey. Kelly defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for reporting his concerns about President Donald Trump’s Ukraine telephone call, and he offered pointed criticism of Trump’s approach to North Korea and his rhetoric on immigration, among other topics.

  • Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts, suspended his longshot campaign for president after failing to gain any traction since joining the race in November.

  • Troy Price, the president of Iowa’s Democratic Party, has resigned his position following last week’s caucus fiasco.

  • The Senate will vote later today on a war powers resolution limiting President Trump’s authority to launch military strikes against Iran. The measure is expected to receive enough Republican support to pass, but not enough to override a presidential veto.

  • The Pentagon is backing additional restrictions on Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, according to a Politico report.

  • The Department of Education is launching an investigation into Harvard and Yale Universities in response to their alleged failure to “report hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign gifts and contracts.”

Rule of Law or Rule of Trump?

In yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, we covered the Justice Department’s unprecedented decision to overrule its own line prosecutors working on the Roger Stone case, filing a new brief informing the judge that Justice considered the seven- to nine-year sentence prosecutors had sought to be “excessive and unwarranted.” The move provoked widespread outrage, most of it predicated on the assumption that Trump himself had leaned on the Justice Department—in particular, his loyal attorney general William Barr—to step in on the Stone case.

While several Trump administration officials spent Wednesday seeking to downplay suggestions of presidential meddling, their boss took to Twitter and validated those very suspicions, continuing to rage against the Stone prosecutors and commending Barr for stepping in.

Barr, who was appointed to serve as attorney general after Trump fired Jeff Sessions from the post for not doing enough to head off the Mueller investigation, had not been directly tied to the decision to intervene in the Stone case. That is, until President Trump tweeted his congratulations to Barr for “taking charge”:

Speaking in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon, Trump again left the possibility of a pardon for Stone open: “I don’t want to say yet,” he told reporters. “People were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people.” 

A quick refresher about Stone’s misdeeds: In 2017, a (GOP-led) House committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election examined the role WikiLeaks played in the Russia-orchestrated theft of a trove of emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Stone, who had shown suspicious foreknowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of that trove, was called before the committee to testify. Speaking under oath, Stone claimed that he had never asked his sources to communicate messages to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and that he had never discussed WikiLeaks with his friends on the Trump campaign. The court established that these were lies. In order to cover up his lies, Stone also tried to badger his associate Roger Credico into lying to Congress as well. 

It’s worth taking a moment to drill down on exactly what the problem is here. The argument that Stone shouldn’t have to serve seven to nine isn’t unreasonable on its face—indeed, for a first-time non-violent offender, there’s a case to be made that this was a reach. (To arrive at that figure, prosecutors relied heavily on Stone’s threats against his Credico to keep him from ratting Stone out, including a message telling him to “prepare to die, c---sucker.” Credico testified that he didn’t feel actually threatened by the messages, which he chalked up to typical Stone theatrics.)

The problem is that the Trump administration has given us no reason to believe that the Justice Department intervened out of altruistic concern that their prosecutors were behaving overzealously in one of their cases, and every reason to believe that they intervened because Trump wanted them to do so for a personal ally who had shown him loyalty by not flipping at trial. 

On the home page, we have an insightful look at all of this from Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor who served as assistant attorney general and head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush.

To understand the significance of President Trump’s intervention in Justice Department guidance about the Roger Stone sentence, consider President Barack Obama’s interview with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes on October 11, 2015. Kroft asked Obama about the Hillary Clinton private email investigation. Obama said that Clinton’s email use was a “mistake” but that the issue had been “ginned up in part because of politics” and was “not a situation in which America's national security was endangered.” Obama added: “We don't get an impression that here there was purposely efforts … to hide something or to squirrel away information.”

Obama made similar points in an interview with Chris Wallace on April 10, 2016. “I can tell that you this is not a situation in which America's national security was endangered,” he said. Obama added that Clinton “would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy,” and then suggested that Clinton did not have highly classified information on her server. When Wallace ask for assurances that there would be no political influence on the investigation, Obama said: “I do not talk to the Attorney General about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line, and always have maintained it.”

Obama here correctly described the norm that had governed White House-Justice Department relations since Watergate. The problem was that his public comments about the case expressed a view about how it should be resolved—a view known in short order to both the Attorney General and FBI Director. By publicly talking about the case and expressing a view about the merits, Obama violated the very norm of Justice Department independence that he articulated…

Republicans were furious when Obama prejudged the Clinton case, and when Bill Clinton visited Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the Phoenix airport tarmac, which also posed a least an appearance problem. They were furious because the president’s statements and the attorney general’s actions seemed to violate Justice Department independence and presented at least an appearance of self-serving law enforcement. That is an important principle.

But where are Republicans on that principle today, when President Trump violates it much more often and much more crassly and in much more obviously self-serving ways, all of which are enormously destructive to public confidence in law enforcement by the Justice Department? The answer is familiar but still ugly: They don’t care about the principle when ignoring it serves their political interests. Which means: they don’t care about the principle.

As for Attorney General Barr: He has contributed to the perception of politicized law enforcement by giving interviews and speeches that appear to prejudge the investigation of the origins of the 2016 FBI investigation into president Trump, and that, more broadly, indicate that he sees many law enforcement and law-compliance issues through a left-right political lens. But now he has acted in a manner consistent with the president’s overt and highly political wishes to minimize Stone’s sentence, and the president has praised him for it. Whatever the reality of Barr’s decisonmaking process, it definitely appears that he bowed to the President’s politically self-serving wishes.

Barr has a large conception of the president’s power to control investigations. But he is also, I still believe, a man of principle who loves the Justice Department. For his sake, and for the Department’s, he needs to make the president stop barking politicized commands to the Department. Or he needs to stop acting in ways consistent with those orders and provocations. Or, if he cannot do one of those two things, he should quit.

We haven’t heard the last of this story. On Wednesday, Attorney General Barr agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about the Stone affair. That testimony will take place March 31. 

Running on Trump

The national media has been glued to the Democratic presidential primary so far this year—and rightly so. But as we inch closer to the 2020 election, there’s going to be more and more interesting and offbeat races to pay attention to down-ballot, which we at The Dispatch hope to shine a spotlight on over the coming months. 

One of those contests is taking place next week: the GOP primary in a special election to replace retired Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, who stepped down from Congress last year to help care for a child who was born with serious medical issues. Over at the site today, Andrew has a piece previewing the primary in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, which pits Tom Tiffany, a state senator and veteran of Scott Walker’s celebrated fiscally conservative government, against Jason Church, a military veteran and double-amputee, with a remarkable backstory and a Trumpian rhetorical flair: 

Unsurprisingly, given the makeup of their district, both Church and Tiffany have taken every opportunity to declare their unwavering allegiance to Donald Trump. In his ads, Tiffany touts his “experience draining the swamp” in Madison and pledges to “help President Trump clean out the three-ring circus in Washington.” Church does the same: “President Trump is making tough decisions. He’s trying to secure out border. He’s trying to create jobs. But he needs help. He needs people who come from outside politics, people who don’t owe anything to anyone. People who just want to do what’s right.”

But if you’d never heard of the man before talking to Tiffany and Church, you might walk away from the conversation thinking they must have been describing two different presidents.

In Tiffany’s telling, Donald Trump is a model free-market, small-government, pro-business conservative: “I just look at the actions of the president, the tax cuts. I’ve seen how it’s turbo-charged the economy. I see it right here in Wisconsin, the regulatory reform that is near and dear to my heart, because I’ve worked on those issues. When I hear ‘drain the swamp,’ I think about the regulatory stuff, with all those alphabet agencies that you have out in Washington, D.C., that put so much red tape that strangles businesses large and small, that puts great restrictions on our economy.”

It’s not surprising that Tiffany plays up those elements of the Trump agenda. “In the case of Tiffany, it’s playing to his strengths because that’s the type of thing that he does in the state legislature,” said Wilkerson, who has endorsed Tiffany in the race. “Tom Tiffany is definitely a small-government conservative; he’d have been very comfortable as a conservative under Ronald Reagan.”  

But it’s also hard to argue that Church isn’t the candidate who’s more directly channeling the parts of Donald Trump that made him appealing to so many white working-class voters in the first place.

“I’ll tell you why I’ve supported him from day one,” Church said. “And that’s because President Trump identified something that we all here in northern Wisconsin have felt for a long time. And that is that our culture was under attack. I mean, people like Omar and AOC, when they start pushing things like multiculturalism and intersectionality, what they’re really doing is they’re pointing a finger at someone here in Tomahawk, someone here in Bloomer, in Hudson, in Wausau. And they’re saying, ‘You’re what’s wrong with America.’”

Worth Your Time

  • A week after his acquittal by the Senate, President Trump is demonstrating he feels emboldened like never before. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, and Josh Dawsey report Trump “is testing the rule of law … seeking to bend the executive branch into an instrument for his personal and political vendetta against perceived enemies. And Trump—simmering with rage, fixated on exacting revenge against those he feels betrayed him and insulated by a compliant Republican Party—is increasingly comfortable doing so to the point of feeling untouchable, according to the president’s advisers and allies.”

  • Steven Levy has been covering Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg for nearly 15 years, and his book Facebook: The Inside Story will be published later this month. In this excerpt published in WIRED, he details some of Zuckerberg’s earliest visions for what his company would become: “He wanted Facebook to be wide open eventually, but on the pages of the notebook, you could see him grappling with the implications. What distinguished Facebook from other social networks was the assumed privacy provided by its gated setup. Open Reg would throw open those gates to the masses. But would people then no longer see Facebook as a safe space? In designing Open Reg, he posted one final question to himself. “What makes this seem secure, whether or not it actually is?” He seemed at least as concerned about the perception of privacy as with privacy itself.”

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Also Presented Without Comment

Presented With One Comment

Andrew Yang dropped out of the presidential primary last night, telling supporters he is “not someone who wants to accept donations and support in a race that we will not win.”

Other candidates have a different approach.

Something Fun

Bernie Sanders is back in the news, reminding us of this poor guy from 2016. Not every balding older white guy is a leading presidential candidate and/or multimillionaire showrunner!

Toeing the Company Line

  • In his latest Vital Interests newsletter, Thomas Joscelyn draws from a presentation by director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina to take a look at China’s quest for global dominance, and why it is an “all-encompassing threat.” Give the whole thing a read here.

  • Jonah was joined on The Remnant podcast earlier this week by AEI scholar Derek Scissors to discuss all things China: Its trade agreement with the U.S., Huawei, coronavirus, and more. You can listen to their conversation here.

Let Us Know

Mike Bloomberg is apparently paying Instagram influencers to post memes that let “everyone know [he’s] the cool candidate.”

Our question to you: How much should we here at The Morning Dispatch demand when El Bloombito inevitably comes knocking?

  • $30: Lunch for Andrew and Declan. Good enough.

  • $1 billion: This newsletter is prime real estate. We’re not going to give it up for just anyone.

  • $61.8 billion: To win our approval, he must sacrifice the entirety of his fortune, thereby rendering himself toothless in the Democratic primary.

  • N/A: There is no price. We would never do such a thing; we value our readers’ trust too much—happy, Steve?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Donald Trump by Alex Wong/Getty Images.