Attorney General William Barr argued Wednesday that coronavirus-related lockdown orders were surpassed only by slavery as the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in the nation’s history.
The remarks from the attorney general came during an event hosted by Hillsdale College where Barr delivered a speech defending his intervention in Justice Department cases and comparing career prosecutors to preschoolers.
“Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said during a question-and-answer session following his remarks.
Barr also used the appearance to address the widespread criticism he has faced as the nation’s top law enforcement officer for allegedly interfering in prominent criminal cases on behalf of President Donald Trump’s political interests.
The attorney general specifically attacked Justice Department attorneys who had made prosecutorial decisions with which he disagreed.
“Name one successful organization where the lowest level employees’ decisions are deemed sacrosanct. There aren’t any,” Barr said, according to a Justice Department copy of his remarks. “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.”
Barr asserted that “individual prosecutors can sometimes become headhunters, consumed with taking down their target,” and charged that “smart, ambitious lawyers have sought to amass glory by prosecuting prominent public figures since the Roman Republic.”
The attorney general has faced his most significant scrutiny from former Justice Department officials and legal observers for his interference in the cases of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime former political adviser.
Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination with the Trump campaign.
The Justice Department abandoned its prosecution of Flynn in May after the release of FBI records that disclosed details about the origins of the bureau’s criminal case against him and suggested internal deliberation over how to approach the politically explosive investigation.
In a motion that was not signed by any career prosecutors, who withdrew from the case, the department argued the Flynn probe lacked an investigative predicate and was therefore invalid.
Stone was convicted on all charges last November for impeding congressional and FBI investigations into connections between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign. Federal prosecutors argued in February he should be sent to prison for roughly seven to nine years.
But after Trump criticized the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation in a tweet, the Justice Department submitted a revised filing that offered no specific term for Stone’s sentence but stated that the prosecutors’ initial proposal “could be considered excessive and unwarranted.”
The four government attorneys who had shepherded Stone’s prosecution then withdrew from the case in protest, and Trump personally congratulated Barr for “taking charge” of the matter.
A federal judge ultimately sentenced Stone to 40 months in prison, but Trump commuted his sentence in July.