- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2020

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III backed up President Trump’s declaration that while a president has the “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases pursued by his Justice Department, it is “not a wise thing to do.”

Mr. Meese, who served as the nation’s top cop under President Reagan, said a president should refrain from exercising every power he has.

“Technically, the president can order any government official to do anything that is legal, but that doesn’t mean it is proper,” he told The Washington Times. “If it’s a criminal case before the court, obviously that’s a different situation because it is not proper.”

His view of executive power echoes Mr. Trump’s recent tweet that he has a legal right to intervene in criminal cases such as the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendations for Roger Stone. So far, he has not become directly involved in any criminal prosecutions.

The tweet fanned the latest political bonfire in Washington, where accusations of political tampering erupted after Attorney General William P. Barr overruled a harsh recommended sentence for Stone, a longtime Republican Party operative and ally of Mr. Trump.

A jury convicted Stone in November of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering for impeding a congressional investigation into suspected collusion between Russia and Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

His sentencing is scheduled for Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Mr. Meese said the president’s late-night tweet criticizing Justice Department prosecutors for recommending a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Stone does not amount to interference in a criminal case.

Hours after the president’s tweet, senior Justice Department officials amended the sentencing recommendation to seek a more lenient sentence. Mr. Barr has insisted the tweet did not influence his decision-making.

“It is not interfering, but it is not a wise thing to do,” Mr. Meese said of the tweet. “As the attorney general mentioned, it raises questions in the mind of the public about the independence of the Justice Department handling the case.”

Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president, told “Fox News Sunday” that Mr. Trump’s tweets fell far short of intervention in the Stone case and that he never pressured Mr. Barr on the case.

“The president hasn’t done that,” she said.

Mr. Barr last week told ABC News that the president’s Twitter comments “make it impossible for me to do my job.”

Still, he insisted that Mr. Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.”

Mr. Barr received high marks from Mr. Meese, who said it was important to do the televised interview and “set the record straight.”

Mr. Meese also agreed that prosecutors’ recommendation for nine years was disproportionate with similar cases.

“The Roger Stone case was handled wrong from the start,” he said.

As for his own tenure as attorney general, Mr. Meese said the Reagan White House never pressured him to influence a criminal case.

“Ronald Reagan knew from the time he was governor it would be improper for him to make a comment on a criminal case,” he said. “No one in the White House could even talk to anyone at the DOJ unless it was cleared through me or my deputy.”

Senate Democrats accused Mr. Barr of using the ABC News interview to try to undermine the Justice Department.

A group of eight Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a presidential candidate, penned a letter to Mr. Barr calling for his immediate resignation.

“You and other top DOJ officials intervened in a clearly political fashion to undermine the administration of justice at the President’s behest in order to protect a well-connected political ally who committed a ‘direct and brazen attack on the rule of law,’” they wrote.

Mr. Meese said the senator’s criticism was unfair.

“There should be no question about his integrity and willingness to follow the law,” he said. “I think the president indicated his respect and appreciation for the AG’s work.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat and another presidential candidate, said it wasn’t realistic to expect Mr. Barr’s resignation, but she would like him to testify about the Stone case before the Senate.

“I’d be glad if he resigned, but I just don’t think that’s realistic,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The top judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said Friday that his court will not be influenced by public opinion, including Mr. Trump’s tweets.

“The Judges of this Court base their sentencing decisions on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them; the applicable sentencing guidelines and statutory factors; the submissions of the parties, the Probation Office and victims; and their own judgment and experience,” Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell said in a statement.

“Public criticism or pressure is not a factor,” the judge said.

It is rare for judges to make public statements about cases, even if they are not overseeing them. The statement is seen as a sharp reminder that judges — not the president nor the Justice Department — have the sole authority to decide a defendant’s criminal sentences.

• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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