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Opinion | A new story of Trump-era DOJ political pressure requires a hard look

A respected federal prosecutor who once headed a premier U.S. attorney’s office has told his story of how President Donald Trump tried repeatedly to use the Justice Department against his political opponents. The allegations seemed to have caused hardly a ripple. Mr. Trump is arguably the most scandal-ridden president in the country’s history, and the allegations from former Manhattan U.S. attorney Geoffrey S. Berman have been overshadowed by the unfolding investigation into Mr. Trump’s alleged pilfering of classified government documents. It’s imperative, though, to determine exactly what happened and who might be culpable in any efforts to weaponize the Justice Department.

Mr. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York for 2½ years, until Mr. Trump fired him in June 2020, describes in a new memoir efforts by Mr. Trump to use the U.S. Attorney’s Office to support the then-president’s political interests and punish his opponents. In the book, “Holding the Line,” Mr. Berman alleges that Justice Department political appointees pushed him to investigate John F. Kerry after the former secretary of state and Democratic senator criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Trump, Mr. Berman wrote, wanted Mr. Kerry prosecuted for violations of the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from engaging in unauthorized diplomacy. Mr. Berman writes how he refused because the law is vague and no one has ever been convicted of violating it.

Mr. Berman claims that Trump appointees also pressured him to investigate Gregory B. Craig, a White House counsel under President Barack Obama, for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. “It’s time for you guys to even things out,” Mr. Berman said a Justice Department official told him after Trump supporters had been indicted just before the 2018 midterm elections. After Mr. Berman refused to charge Mr. Craig, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia charged the former Obama official with making false statements. A jury acquitted Mr. Craig. Some of Mr. Berman’s harshest words are directed at former attorney general William P. Barr, whom he describes as “thuggish” in his alleged meddling in a range of sensitive investigations.

Some of the Justice Department officials against whom Mr. Berman has made allegations have denied his account. Thankfully, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced it will investigate Mr. Berman’s claims. The panel should do so impartially, because more is at stake than history.

If Mr. Berman’s account is true, he and others in the department deserve praise for refusing to bow to political pressure. But more important is determining whether there are vulnerabilities in the Justice Department’s structure and procedures that need to be patched. Mr. Berman, for example, recommends that the department not be allowed to shop around cases to other U.S. attorneys when one has already declined to prosecute someone, as occurred in the case involving Mr. Craig.

We wish Mr. Berman had spoken out earlier and not waited until he had a book to sell. But the warning he sounds — about the fragility of justice and the danger that a second Trump presidency might pose — must not go unnoticed.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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