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Justice Department Alumni Call For Barr To Step Down

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We begin the program looking at the Department of Justice. Today, more than 1,000 Department of Justice alumni signed an open letter demanding the resignation of Attorney General William Barr. The letter condemns Barr's decision to go against federal prosecutors who recommended a seven to nine-year sentence for the former Trump adviser Roger Stone. He was found guilty of seven federal crimes, including lying to Congress and witness tampering. That led to those prosecutors quitting in protest this past week.

The signatories on a letter have worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations. They argue that the backbone of the justice system is at risk, and rule of law is eroding. Julie Zebrak is among the signatories. She spent nearly two decades working at the Department of Justice, and she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

JULIE ZEBRAK: Thanks for having me, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with this letter today. Over a thousand people signed it. I'll just read a line from it. Quote, "governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics. They are autocracies." So - end quote - why did you feel it was so important to do this?

ZEBRAK: Right. So that's really the crux of the letter. So, you know, over the past three years, many of us who spent time at the Department of Justice have watched really the erosion of the rule of law, the way that the department and the White House interact and the norms that we have relied on since the Nixon administration. And so there - we have to sort of speak up and speak out where we can and use our voices and our platforms.

And, you know, the biggest concern that we have is that folks will get used to - American people will get used to this kind of operation and think that it's normal coming out of the Trump administration when it's very far from normal, and really, the most alarming news, in my view, that we've had in these three and a half years.

FADEL: If you could explain why it's so terrifying - how this moment - you know, we've seen administrations in the past criticized for using the DOJ to further their own political goals. What's different? What is so scary to you?

ZEBRAK: You know, the Department of Justice - and, frankly, the U.S. government has spent 30 years at least teaching other governments around the world how to avoid corrupt administrations, how to avoid autocracies and dictatorships. We have spread our own democracy around the world.

And here we are after decades of training other countries looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing that the behavior of this attorney general vis-a-vis the White House, Bill Barr, is basically allowing the president to go after his enemies and to exonerate his friends. And when the law doesn't apply in the way - when the administration of justice is not done fairly, it really simply eviscerates the rule of law. And that's what we're scared about.

FADEL: Now, Attorney General Barr said he would not be bullied or influenced, many saying actions speak louder than words. But then the president tweeted he has the absolute legal right to interfere. He hasn't interfered, but he has the absolute legal right to interfere if he wants to. Is that true?

ZEBRAK: (Laughter) Not since the Nixon years have we endorsed that kind of rule of law. No, it's not true. Historically, we have kept the White House out of our law enforcement decisions with the FBI, with the Department of Justice. The White House has not been able to weigh in on who we bring cases against and who we dismiss cases for. That's something that we have had norms, had rules in placed specifically on who the White House is able to communicate with.

Certainly, President Trump is within his rights to communicate with his attorney general and deputy attorney general, and he, as we all know, has a hard time sort of (laughter) holding his views to himself. But at the end of the day, he doesn't have the right to influence what the department's prosecution and non-prosecution decisions are vis-a-vis people who are under investigation or under prosecution by the Department of Justice.

FADEL: So, you know, some people will be listening to you and dismissing what you're saying as partisanship. What would you say to listeners who are hearing that?

ZEBRAK: If you look at the list, you'll see that almost everyone on that list has served through multiple administrations, including Republican and Democrat. And the key here is that we are saying that it doesn't matter who's in the White House. Frankly, I can tell you personally that I would have the same feeling if there was a Democrat in the White House and a Democrat at the helm of the Department of Justice.

It doesn't matter who's in the White House. The rule of law and keeping the Department of Justice as an independent institution with the integrity that it has always enjoyed - keeping that separate from the White House is in - of paramount importance.

FADEL: That's Julie Zebrak. She's one of more than 1,000 Justice Department alumni who signed a letter calling for the resignation of Attorney General William Barr.

Julie, thank you for your time.

ZEBRAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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