The U.S. Attorney’s Office at the center of President Trump’s politicization of the Justice Department will soon have a new boss.
His name is Justin Herdman, and he’s currently the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, in Cleveland. Attorney General Bill Barr praised Herdman’s appointment earlier this week, as he continues to oversee a range of investigations into Trump’s political opponents and after having interfered in two cases to benefit friends of the President.
The stakes for Herdman are high.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who endorsed Herdman’s nomination to the post of U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in 2017, said in a statement to TPM that the office which Herdman will soon be leading has been “used as a political arm of the White House.”
“The last two people that held this post had their careers made or destroyed based on their loyalty to President Trump and Bill Barr, rather than the rule of law,” Brown said. “Justin Herdman will have to make the choice — if he’ll oversee this office with the rule of law as his guidepost, or if he’ll fold to this Administration’s political interests.”
“I hope Mr. Herdman will do Ohio proud and restore the rule of law to both the office of the U.S. Attorney for the District Of Columbia and the Flynn case,” Brown added.
Herdman has his work cut out for him.
The past few months have seen Timothy Shea, the acting U.S. Attorney and a former Barr adviser, help the attorney general interfere in two ongoing criminal cases to benefit friends of the President’s. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Shea had restructured the office’s criminal division over the past week.
“Knowing the office the way I do, I suspect that morale is in the basement,” Randall D. Eliason, a former chief of the D.C. office’s public corruption unit and professor at the George Washington University School of Law, told TPM. “The biggest challenge for [Herdman] is going to be demonstrating to people in the office that he’s not a political actor for Barr, that he’s an independent thinker.”
Earlier this month, the office made a stunning, unprecedented reversal in the case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Shea signed off on a motion to drop charges in the case, after Flynn had already pleaded guilty. One D.C. prosecutor resigned in protest.
The move came at Barr’s direction, and cited misleading and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the circumstances of Flynn’s 2017 interview with the FBI to make the case for dropping the charges.
That case remains active, so long as the D.C. Circuit Court doesn’t force District Judge Emmett Sullivan to stop his current bid to have a retired judge oppose the DOJ’s request to drop the charges.
The Flynn fiasco came two months after the same office recommended a light sentence for GOP operative and longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, contradicting an earlier filing that had asked for Stone to spend at least six years behind bars.
Five federal prosecutors resigned from the case in protest at the time.
“The damage that’s being done to the reputation of the DOJ for being apolitical is tremendous, and it’s going to take a long time to fix that damage,” Eliason said. “So the task for anyone would be first to restore morale.”
Barb McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said Herdman would have to address the politicization of the office early on, following his confirmation.
“If you ignore it, it’s the elephant in the room, so he has to acknowledge that there’s been this rift, and tell them how he’s gonna make it better, and show through his conduct that he means what he says,” McQuade said.
She added that Shea’s apparent willingness to “do the dirty work for Barr in many ways paves the way for Herdman to come in.”
“[Shea] was willing to bend to the pressure of Barr, who was very interested in intervening in cases,” McQuade said. “It suggests that there are two systems of justice: one for the President, and one for everyone else.”
Apart from the Flynn and Stone cases, the D.C. office continues to run investigations into public corruption and government fraud. Politico reported on Tuesday that the investigation into Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) is being run out of the D.C. office, along with DOJ headquarters’s Public Integrity Section.
The handling of sensitive cases like that could serve as a signal of how Herdman’s tenure will go.
Herdman is coming to D.C. after serving as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio — based in Cleveland — since 2017.
Sen. Brown recommended Herdman for the job in 2017, after meeting with him, along with Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
A longtime prosecutor, Herdman made headlines last summer for forcefully denouncing white supremacist ideology after bringing charges against an Ohio white nationalist.
“If you’re willing to step out and say those things, it does demonstrate independence,” McQuade noted.