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caption: Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan listens during a community vigil for Pittsburgh on Monday, October 29, 2018, at the Temple De Hirsch Sinai on 16th Avenue in Seattle.
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Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan listens during a community vigil for Pittsburgh on Monday, October 29, 2018, at the Temple De Hirsch Sinai on 16th Avenue in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Here's why Attorney General Barr might go after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan

Attorney General William Barr explored bringing criminal charges against Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan over the police-free protest zone on Capitol Hill, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The Times said Barr asked prosecutors in the Justice Department’s civil rights division to explore whether Durkan could be charged with violating people’s constitutional rights for not having police on the streets in the so-called CHOP. The Times said he also wanted sedition charges levied against protesters.

The Times later issued a correction saying lawyers in the civil rights division discussed such charges but that the Justice Department denied that Barr directed civil rights prosecutors to explore charges.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter Katie Benner joined KUOW’s Angela King to discuss her story.

King: How did Barr think the law could apply in this case, specifically with the mayor?

Benner: The idea of it is really interesting because he was looking at a statute that's usually used for, for example, police or police violence, whether their actions under color of law have deprived people of their civil rights. So he was taking a statute that's usually applied to police misconduct, and sort of querying, "do you think this has any relevance here with Mayor Durkan and her willingness to let the CHOP persist?" The Justice Department late last night denied this reporting. We have two sources on it. Wall Street Journal has sourcing as well, but they have said that this is not true.

Mayor Durkan has responded to your story. What did she have to say?

She called the report chilling. She called it another example of the abuse of power from the Trump administration. And she reminded everybody that she herself is a former U.S. attorney, she used to run the office in Seattle, and that she has some expertise when it comes to what she believes is protecting the Constitution, the rule of law, and that going after somebody's political enemies with criminal charges is what she would call an act of tyranny, not of democracy. She came up with a really strong response.

The current U.S. attorney for Western Washington, Brian Moran, seems to indicate he doesn't believe Barr is actively pursuing any charges. What did he have to say about your report?

His response was really fascinating. He said at no time has anyone at the department communicated to me that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is or was or should be the subject of a criminal investigation. And he said as U.S. attorney I would be aware of such an investigation.

Now, first of all, they never opened an official investigation. Second of all, I actually am not so sure that as U.S. attorney he would be aware of such an investigation, because I spoke with multiple former U.S. attorneys yesterday, including Chuck Rosenberg, who was the U.S. attorney out here in Virginia. And they all said that in a case like this, looking at a public figure who had once run the Seattle office, the entire office would be recused because there is no way that the office would be able to fairly investigate a former boss, you know whether people loved her or hated her.

Also, the conversation took place here in Washington. So there is no reason why such a preliminary conversation would have necessarily floated out to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle. And I'm sure that he is looped in. He's very tight with Attorney General Barr, but in this case, I don't think that it's necessarily correct to say that he would have certainly been aware of those conversations.

A word that's been floating around in connection with this administration is "unprecedented." We've heard that so much over the past four years. And you note in your story that Barr has directly inserted himself into the presidential race.

You have to go back to the Nixon administration to see a time when an attorney general was so tightly aligned with a candidate and so tightly aligned with a president and really work on behalf of the president in such an overt way that actually stopped after Watergate, in part because people saw it as a huge problem -- the idea of using law enforcement as a cudgel against political enemies.

So Barr, he is not on the campaign trail. He's very savvy, he would never appear at a campaign event. But instead, he's making statements that are very, very controversial, and that are very political. You know, he has said that the country will go down the path of socialism if President Trump is not reelected, and he has basically said that we could lose our democracy. So not only has he talked about the race, he has said that there's really only one way to vote, if you believe in the Constitution.

So what kind of autonomy does the Justice Department have right now?

I would say that the Justice Department doesn't have autonomy right now. And Bill Barr gave a speech last night in Arlington, Virginia, where he talked about his belief that the Justice Department, the men and women, the career lawyers should not have autonomy. He said in an ironic twist, that it’s only political power that keeps a check on the worst instincts of the people who work at the department.

Now pause for a minute, it's pretty shocking. Some people who work for him would think that he had just insulted them. And he did. You know, he's saying that if you work at the Justice Department your entire career, you're pretty narrow minded, you're pretty narrow focus. You don't have the expertise. And so you might just go after people because you can't rein in your own, baser instincts to prosecute someone you don't like. But it's only political figures like himself who in common take a look at the big picture and say this is actually how justice should be meted out. And then if people don't like it, they can vote out the administration.

He believes that necessarily the government is political. He has the final say, he has the final word, he can overrule people. And that politics in the department, they really collapse under him. And that is his vision for running the department.