Barr takes control of legal matters of interest to Trump, including Stone sentencing

WASHINGTON — The U.S. attorney who had presided over an inconclusive criminal investigation into former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe was abruptly removed from that job last month in one of several recent moves by Attorney General William Barr to take control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

A person familiar with the matter has confirmed to NBC News that President Trump has now rescinded the nomination of the U.S. attorney, Jessie Liu, for a job as an undersecretary at the Treasury Department.

On Tuesday, all four line prosecutors withdrew from the case against Trump associate Roger Stone — and one quit the Justice Department altogether — after Barr and his top aides intervened to reverse a stiff sentencing recommendation of up to nine years in prison that the line prosecutors had filed with the court Monday.

But that wasn't the first time senior political appointees reached into a case involving a former Trump aide, officials told NBC News. Senior officials at the Justice Department also intervened last month to help change the government's sentencing recommendation for Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI. While once the prosecutors in the case had recommended up to six months in jail for Flynn, their latest filing now says they believe probation would be appropriate.

The new filing came on the same day Jessie Liu, was removed from her job, to be replaced the next day by a former prosecutor selected by Barr. Liu had been overseeing the criminal investigation into McCabe, who was accused by the department’s inspector general of lying to investigators. McCabe has not been charged, despite calls by President Trump for him to go to prison.

The resignations and the unusual moves by Barr come as Trump has sought revenge against government officials who testified after being subpoenaed by congressional Democrats in their impeachment investigation. In the days since the Senate acquitted him, Trump fired his ambassador to the European Union, a political supporter the president nominated, and had other officials moved out of the White House.

"This signals to me that there has been a political infestation," NBC News legal analyst Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney, said on MSNBC. "And that is the single most dangerous thing that you can do to the Department of Justice."

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William Barr through the years
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William Barr through the years
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 1991 file photo, then Attorney General nominee William Barr is shown on Capitol Hill in Washington. Barr once advised the U.S. government that it could attack Iraq without Congressional approval, arrest a deposed foreign dictator and capture suspects abroad without that country’s permission. Those decisions reflect a broad view of presidential power that Barr, President Donald Trump's pick to reclaim his old attorney general job, demonstrated at the Justice Department and in the years since. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
U.S. President George H. Bush signs into law new civil rights guarantees for women and minorities at a Rose Garden ceremony, Thursday, Nov. 21, 1991 in Washington, as Vice President Dan Quayle, left, and Acting Attorney General William Barr look on. The bill signing capped a two-year struggle with congress over whether the legislation encouraged job quotas. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
U.S. President George H. Bush, right, and William Barr wave after Barr was sworn in as the new Attorney General of the United States, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1991 at a Justice Department ceremony in Washington. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)
U.S. President George H. Bush gestures while talking to Attorney General William Barr in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 4, 1992 in Washington. The President met with top domestic Cabinet officers to tackle long-range problems pushed to the forefront by last week's deadly riots in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander)
Board member of MCI Telecommunications, Nicholas Katzenbach, second left, speaks at hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on "The WorldCom Case: Looking at Bankruptcy and Competition Issues" on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, July 22, 2003. Witnesses are, from left, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Verizon Communications William Barr, Katzenbach, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP's Marcia Goldstein, Communications Workers of America President Morton Bahr, National Bankruptcy Conference Vice-Chair Douglas Baird, Cerberus Capital Management Chief Operation Officer Mark Neporent. (AP Photo/Akira Ono)
Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, left, listens as William Redpath, Libertarian Party national chairman, answers a question at a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. (AP Photo)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, left, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee member and Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, arrives to meet with Senate Judiciary Committee member and Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, William Barr, right, meets with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Barr, who served in the position in the early 1990s, has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week and could be in place at the Justice Department as soon as February when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein leaves after Barr is confirmed. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Attorney General nominee William Barr , left, turns to answer a reporter's question as he arrives to meet with Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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In the Stone case, a new filing Tuesday says the previous recommendation does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice's position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter." A nine year sentence "could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances," the filing says, declining to recommend a specific term and instead asking the judge considers an "appropriate" sentence.

"I've never seen this happen, ever," said Gregory Brower, a former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official. "I'd be shocked if the judge didn't order the U.S. attorney to come into court to explain it."

The interim U.S. attorney for Washington, Timothy Shea, was named by Barr on Jan. 30. His announcement noted it's the largest U.S. attorney's office in the country and highlighted Shea's "reputation as a fair prosecutor."

It didn't mention that Liu had been unceremoniously pushed out. Liu had been picked for a job in the Treasury Department, and normally she would have remained as U.S. Attorney until the Senate voted on her nomination, current and former officials said. Trump has now rescinded her nomination as undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes.

The revocation of the nomination was first reported by Axios.

The change in the Flynn sentencing recommendation, coming in the midst of the Trump impeachment trial, received less attention than it might have.

On Jan. 7, after Flynn moved to withdraw his guilty plea, prosecutors in the case recommended a sentence that included possible jail time. Their original recommendation was probation, given that Flynn had cooperated in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

But, people familiar with the matter said, senior Justice Department officials pressured prosecutors to reverse course. On Jan. 29, the government filed a new document with the court saying a sentence of probation was "reasonable."

The next day, Barr announced the appointment of Shea, a former federal prosecutor.

The announcement Tuesday that the government would seek a lighter sentence for Stone came just hours after Trump called the recommendation that Stone serve seven to nine years in jail "horrible and very unfair."

"Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!" he wrote on Twitter.

DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told NBC News that Barr had no contact with the White House, and that the decision to change the sentencing recommendation was made before the Trump tweet.

That has not stopped critics from questioning a decision by Barr to step into a case involving a longtime friend of Trump who was convicted of lying to Congress for the express purpose, prosecutors made clear at the trial, of protecting the president.

David Laufman, the Justice Department's former counterintelligence chief, on Twitter called it "a shocking, cram-down political intervention in the criminal justice process. We are now truly at a break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment for the Justice Dept."

"The narrative that's been developing for a long time now is that all of these prosecutions of people connected to the president are the product of a hoax or a witch hunt," Brower said. "The president appears to be acting on that belief."

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