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Too Close For Comfort: Insiders Worry About DOJ Lawyers Speaking At White House

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks during the daily White House press briefing on March 27.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks during the daily White House press briefing on March 27.

John Huber is a career prosecutor in Utah who's served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. This month, the Trump White House nominated him to serve as a U.S. attorney in that state.

But it came as something of a surprise to current and former Justice Department veterans Wednesday when Huber appeared for a news conference in Washington: not in the halls of Justice, but at the White House podium.

Huber and the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement used the platform to advocate for the passage of House bills that increase penalties for undocumented immigrants who break the law and jurisdictions that refuse to share information with federal immigration authorities.

"Kate's Law enhances our ability to stem the tide of criminals who seem to almost always return to victimize us," Huber told the reporters assembled in the briefing room.

He added: "Forty percent of my felony caseload in Utah are criminal alien prosecutions. If it's a problem in Utah, it's a problem for the nation."

To some Justice Department insiders, that appearance was a problem, undermining confidence that DOJ and the FBI's law enforcement functions operate independently of the White House.

Matthew Miller, the top spokesman for President Obama's first attorney general, said both location and personnel matter.

"This is another example of the Trump administration blurring the lines between the White House and law enforcement and encroaching on the Justice Department's independence," Miller said. "U.S. attorneys shouldn't be anywhere near the White House podium in any event, and they certainly shouldn't be there weighing in on hot-button issues as part of a White House political strategy. Every time the Trump administration crosses one of these lines, they weaken the rule of law in America."

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took his own turn at the White House podium, relieving press secretary Sean Spicer, to speak out against so-called sanctuary cities, places that limit information-sharing with federal immigration officials.

A month later, speaking at the border near Nogales, Ariz., Sessions said, "For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned. This is a new era. This is the Trump era."

Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Sessions, brushed back questions this week about the department's proximity to the White House.

"The Department of Justice is committed to making America safe again through fundamental law enforcement principles and will not hesitate to speak out in any venue about policies that endanger neighborhoods and communities around the country."

To be sure, questions about the closeness of top DOJ officials to the president have persisted for generations.

President John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Robert to run the Justice Department. President George W. Bush selected his friend from Texas and onetime White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to be attorney general. And President Obama's long-serving top law enforcement officer, Eric Holder, once called himself the president's "wing man."

But that gives little comfort to former prosecutors and policy aides who follow President Trump's tweets and actions.

During the campaign, he called for the prosecution of his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the White House, he fired FBI Director James Comey and without any evidence, suggested the FBI had illegal wiretapped Trump Tower during last year's campaign.

Trump recently resumed his conflict with news outlets that have reported on him critically. This week, he has bashed CNN as "Fake News," tweeted a female MSNBC anchor was "bleeding badly from a face-lift," and raised questions about whether Amazon, whose founder owns the Washington Post, has been paying its fair share of taxes.

For people questioning the distance between top Justice Department brass and the president, one Republican former law enforcement official offered this reminder: Trump has mulled firing both his attorney general and his deputy attorney general, only five months into his presidency.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.