An old Bill Barr quote about presidential pardons makes a comeback

Bill Barr counseled Donald Trump not to grant clemency to Roger Stone. Perhaps it's because the attorney general feared it might be a crime?
Image: President Trump Holds Roundtable On American Seniors
U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaks during a roundtable at the White House on June 15, 2020.Doug Mills / Pool via Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

In January 2019, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation neared its end, many congressional Democrats were understandably concerned about Donald Trump issuing corrupt pardons to his friends and allied operatives. It was against this backdrop that Bill Barr -- the president's then-nominee to serve as attorney general -- fielded questions on the matter as part of a Senate confirmation process.

Constitutional law professor Harry Litman, a former federal prosecutor, flagged one of particular interest over the weekend: Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) asked the Republican lawyer, "Do you believe a president could lawfully issue a pardon in exchange for the recipient’s promise to not incriminate him?"

Barr responded with no real equivocation. "No," he told Leahy. "That would be a crime."

The former-and-future attorney general was responding at the time to a hypothetical scenario. What he didn't know at the time was, a year and a half later, Donald Trump would commute the sentence of a friend who remained silent in order to not incriminate the president.

All of which makes Barr's quote from early 2019 relevant anew. NBC News reported over the weekend that the attorney general advised Trump not to rescue Roger Stone from legal jeopardy. The president, we now know, did it anyway.

It's against this backdrop that a Washington Post analysis today asked the right question: Why did Barr counsel Trump against the move in the first place?

Why exactly Barr counseled against this isn’t known, but there are two obvious options: He worried about the obviously problematic political appearance of a president commuting the sentence of a man who lied in ways that protected the president himself, and/or he worried about the legal implications of doing it. It seems possible from Barr’s comments that it might be the latter.

Exactly. Barr is hardly indifferent to political considerations. On the contrary, we've seen examples of the attorney general making recommendations to the White House specifically with the 2020 election in mind.

But Barr's comments to Pat Leahy 18 months ago linger in the mind for a reason. Perhaps the A.G. tried to steer Trump in a more responsible direction because he realized the president was allowing himself to drift into felonious waters?