New York (CNN)As the clash between Justice Department leaders and career prosecutors in the case of President Donald Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone spilled into public earlier this week, the leaders of the public-corruption unit in the Manhattan US attorney’s office sat on a courtroom bench, watching with unease as the news flashed across their cell phone screens.
Those prosecutors, who had put Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen in prison, were in court Tuesday to oversee the trial of another politically tinged defendant, Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer who has claimed Trump as his nemesis. For them, the prospect of interference in sensitive cases carries particularly high stakes.
And beyond New York, the Stone situation has reverberated across the country in the past few days, with prosecutors incensed over the apparent intervention by Attorney General William Barr to lighten the sentencing recommendation for Trump’s ally, along with fear of what some perceive as a growing political directive coming from Washington.
On the West Coast, one federal prosecutor said there was an overwhelming sense of “outrage” felt in his office.
A prosecutor on the East Coast voiced concern about the potential impact of political interference on juries and judges, who could perceive that cases aren’t being brought objectively.
And a former prosecutor said his clients have expressed concern about cooperating with investigations out of fear that the Justice Department could interfere improperly in a case, putting them in jeopardy.
Some concerns arose even before the Stone situation. In the past two weeks, the Justice Department has twice ordered US attorney’s offices around the country to participate in what some of them perceive as politically charged actions, according to people familiar with the matter.
First, the department ordered prosecutors to hold news conferences, make statements and use social media to promote Barr’s initiative to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. The Justice Department later retracted the demand, the person said. Still, at least two US attorneys wrote op-eds.
The department also instructed federal prosecutors to write op-eds to push for passage of pending legislation on fentanyl. More than a dozen US attorneys complied with publishing op-eds or written statements. The person said that historically prosecutors have been instructed to avoid commenting on pending legislation.
Elsewhere, in Connecticut, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, the US attorney’s offices have picked up investigations that are in line with what the President has wanted, looking into the origins of the investigation into the 2016 election, examining the Ukraine dealings of the son of Trump’s political rival Joe Biden and reviewing the Michael Flynn prosecution.
A career prosecutor in the rural Northwest said she has faith in Barr and wishes Trump would get out of his way. “He’s not a rookie. He knows what he’s doing,” she said of the attorney general. “Let him do his job.”
The fears over potential political interference are particularly acute in New York, where prosecutors with the US attorney’s office in Manhattan handle high-profile cases with a broad range of geopolitical implications, including terrorism prosecutions as well as investigations involving foreign governments and financial institutions, all of which can intersect with White House interests.
Manhattan prosecutors have also generated cases that are of concern to Trump personally, including the prosecution of Cohen and an investigation of the Trump Organization that ended without charges.
And for the past few months, prosecutors there have been investigating Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, as well as Trump’s inaugural committee.
Still, despite the alarm sounded in recent days, Southern District of New York prosecutors believe that their leader, Geoffrey Berman, has defended the office’s relative autonomy, particularly since Barr’s arrival, according to people familiar with the matter.
Barr, these people said, has attempted to micromanage certain cases, asking more questions and for more frequent updates than his predecessors on matters from Berman.
Berman has bristled at those demands, according to these people, and has repeatedly pushed for actions on certain politically sensitive cases in opposition to Justice Department leadership, most notably the indictment in October of the state-owned Turkish bank, Halk