The most powerful law-enforcement official in St. Louis has been appointed by Attorney General William Barr to participate in President Donald Trump's relentless assault on democracy.
I'm guessing you haven't heard much about it. But you might want to grab some popcorn.
The St. Louisan is Jeffrey Jensen, who holds the formidable position of U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Missouri. He was appointed by Trump in 2017.
On February 14, Barr chose Jensen to join a Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutor in a "review" of the case of Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI more than two years ago. Flynn should have long since been sentenced. Now, his saving grace might be the timing of Trump's march to monarchy.
Since Trump was unshackled from the chains of impeachment by his Republican Senate servants, he has deployed his Twitter account, 72 million followers strong, to wreak havoc on perceived enemies. True to his lifelong mantra — "I can do whatever I want" — Trump is exploring uncharted presidential territory by attacking judges, prosecutors, jurors and witnesses who dare cross him in the judicial system.
Trump chastised and tried to intimidate U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson as she deliberated on the case of his sleazy old pal Roger Stone. After she ignored Trump and gave the felon a richly deserved 40-month prison sentence, the president pouted publicly, angry about how that inevitable pardon will look for him. It's always about him.
The next felon up for Trump's grace would be Flynn, who has conveniently discovered, two years after the fact, that his guilty pleas were actually the work of FBI ventriloquists or some other "Deep State" plot. So, of course, Barr has decided to investigate his own department's handling of the Flynn case.
Even the ultra-conservative Washington Times offered: "Internal Justice Department reviews of cases are exceedingly rare and likely to raise a whole new round of questions about political interference by top officials." That's not so promising for Jensen.
When Flynn confessed to lying to the FBI way back on December 1, 2017, it wasn't for parking violations. Flynn admitted he lied to cover up his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the subjects of U.S. sanctions against Russia and a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements that Jared Kushner was trying, hopelessly, to get Russia to oppose.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan thought this serious enough that he told Flynn in late 2018 "You sold your country out," adding "I'm not hiding my disgust, my disdain for this criminal offense." Now our hometown guy has been tasked by Barr to discover that it's much ado about nothing.
Getting linked with Barr cannot be good for Jensen. Barr's resignation was recently demanded in a scorching bipartisan letter from an astonishing 2,670 former federal prosecutors, who warned that "governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies." They called Barr "unfit."
Two of the signers are prominent St. Louis attorneys: former U.S. Attorney Ed Dowd Jr. and Ambassador Kevin O'Malley. The service of each spanned four presidencies, across party lines. O'Malley, who also served as President Obama's envoy to Ireland, doesn't mince words.
"I see no reason on the record available to the public to re-open Flynn's guilty plea," O'Malley says. "He has already told the judge twice under oath that he lied to the FBI, once at the guilty plea and again at sentencing."
O'Malley adds, "I'm not suspicious of Jeff, but I am suspicious of the mission." But he's way beyond suspicion regarding Flynn:
"In my view, if a 3-star general is saying he was tricked into lying during a non-custodial interview at his own office by two FBI agents — and then pressured by a federal district judge to again lie openly under oath — then the problem is not with the criminal justice system, but with our system of military training."
From the hometown perch in St. Louis, it's unclear why Barr put in a call to the bullpen for Jensen. True, he had a ten-year career as an FBI agent before becoming a lawyer and prosecutor, and in normal times that might have factored into his selection. But there's nothing normal happening here.
Jensen's selection has received surprisingly little coverage at home — just passing news items in the Business Journal and at KSDK.com; and there seems more curiosity nationally than in St. Louis about why Barr cast a good guy like Jensen into such a bad movie as Flynn's.
The most expansive look came from an Associated Press story picked up in the New York Times and other places nationally, but not in St. Louis. It cited three glowing character references for Jensen: former U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway, Washington University adjunct law professor David Rosen and, yes, colorful local attorney Al Watkins.
Hanaway, Jensen's former boss and (later) a law partner, unsurprisingly said "He's fair and unbiased, and he's going to do the right thing." Rosen, who worked with Jensen as a prosecutor, assured that Jensen would "do his very best" to keep his work independent of politics. And Watkins called Jensen "a straight shooter. His word is good. When he says something, you can count on it. He's rock solid."
To be honest, I wouldn't have seen that last one coming. Watkins is better known for receiving briefcases than briefs in Republican circles lately, so his appearance on behalf of Jensen was unexpected. But fun.
There's plenty of irony to go around here. Trump's world is nothing if it's not about condoning and spreading corruption, and it was Jensen's office that sent St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger to prison for that very thing.
Many people who followed the Stenger case probably associate it with Hal Goldsmith, the prosecutor who Jensen brought in for the job, rather than Jensen himself. That speaks to another reason Jensen seems an odd fit for the task at hand: He doesn't seem all that fond of the spotlight.
Jensen has taken some bows for restructuring his office to combat St. Louis violent crime in general, and gangs and drug dealers in particular. But he is also a man of relatively few press conferences. How's that going to work on the big stage?
It's hard to see how this ends well for Jensen, although only time will tell. If he stays true to those testimonials about doing the right thing, resisting politics and shooting straight, can he really say "nothing to see here" with respect to the lying scoundrel Flynn? On the other hand, anything less compliant won't sit well with the Boss.
Jeff Jensen has built himself a fine reputation in St. Louis. But if he fulfills the mission for which Barr has tasked him, he might find himself coming home without it.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at email@example.com or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).