WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr took aim at his own Justice Department on Wednesday night, criticizing prosecutors for behaving as "headhunters" in their pursuit of prominent targets and for using the weight of the criminal justice system to launch what he said were "ill-conceived" political probes.
The comments at a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan amounted to a striking, and unusual, rebuke of the thousands of prosecutors who do the daily work of assembling criminal cases across the country. Barr has faced scrutiny for overruling the decisions of Justice Department prosecutors who work for him, including in criminal cases involving associates of President Donald Trump.
Rejecting the notion that prosecutors should have final say in cases that they bring, Barr described them instead as part of the "permanent bureaucracy" and suggested they need to be supervised, and even reined in, by politically appointed leaders accountable to the president and Congress.
"The men and women who have ultimate authority in the Justice Department are thus the ones on whom our elected officials have conferred that responsibility — by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation," Barr said, according to his prepared remarks. "That blessing by the two political branches of government gives these officials democratic legitimacy that career officials simply do not possess."
Barr himself has been aggressive as attorney general in pursuing certain categories of prosecutions, including using federal statutes to charge defendants in the unrest that roiled cities after the death of George Floyd. But he warned that prosecutors can become overly attached to their cases in ways that lose perspective and judgment, listing a series of prosecutions — including under prior administrations — in which he said he believed the government had taken extreme positions.
"Individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target," Barr said. "Subjecting their decisions to review by detached supervisors ensures the involvement of dispassionate decision-makers in the process."
Barr's comments appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to the fracas that arose ahead of the February sentencing of Trump confidant Roger Stone. In that case, Barr overruled the sentencing recommendation of the line prosecutors in favor of a lighter punishment. The move prompted the entire trial team to quit before Stone's sentencing hearing. Barr has defended his intervention as in the interests of justice.
In May, he sought the dismissal of the criminal case against former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation to lying to the FBI. Barr's request is tied up in a court fight.
Though Barr was accused of undue intervention on behalf of the president's associates, he bristled in his speech Wednesday night at the idea that it was even possible for an attorney general to meddle in the affairs of a department that he leads.
"Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees' decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren't any," Barr said.
He added: "Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it's no way to run a federal agency. Good leaders at the Justice Department — as at any organization — need to trust and support their subordinates. But that does not mean blindly deferring to whatever those subordinates want to do."
He also took a veiled swipe at members of Mueller's team. He suggested that the Trump administration had been more successful than the Obama administration before the Supreme Court, and that one reason for that was that the Obama administration had some of the people who were later on Mueller's team writing their briefs for the court.
That appeared to be a reference to Michael Dreeben, a highly respected lawyer who argued more than 100 cases before the Supreme Court, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, during a decades-long career in the Justice Department's solicitor general's office. Dreeben was a senior member of Mueller's team.