U.S. Attorney General William Barr publicly swiped at Donald Trump on Thursday, declaring that the president’s tweets about Justice Department prosecutors and open cases “make it impossible for me to do my job.”
Barr made the comment during an interview with ABC News just days after his Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended in a court filing that Trump’s longtime ally and confidant Roger Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. The department didn’t offer an amended number.
Barr himself has been under fire for the reversal. Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election
House Democrats have demanded more information about Barr’s intervention in Stone’s case. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized Barr on Thursday, calling him one of Trump’s “henchmen.”
“The attorney general has stooped to such levels,” Pelosi said. “What a sad disappointment. The American people deserve better.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York, called for the Justice Department’s inspector general to step in.
But Barr’s remarks, made so quickly after the decision to back away from the sentencing, suggested he was aware the reversal had chipped away at the Justice Department’s historic reputation for independence from political sway. But he stopped short of acknowledging wrongdoing by anyone.
“The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump “wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions.” She added, “The President has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law.”
Trump has a low tolerance for criticism, especially public criticism, from his allies and often fires back in kind. And the tempered White House response raised questions of whether Barr’s comments were co-ordinated with the White House.
In an early Friday tweet, Trump did not criticize Barr, but claimed he had not intervened but as president had “the legal right” to intervene in criminal proceedings, a debatable claim.
A president has the right to compel the Justice Department to investigate as an executive branch agency. But historically, the Justice Department has functioned as an independent agency, unmoved and unbound by political sway.
Trump, in his tweet, also left open the possibility that he would ask Barr for something in a criminal matter in the future.
Stone to be sentenced next week
Barr said Trump’s tweets created perception problems for the department that called into question its independence, but he denied there was any order from Trump and said Trump’s tweets did not factor into the decision. But left unstated was why specifically the Stone case, one of many criminal proceedings in the past three years involving Trump associates, required the department’s intervention.
Earlier this week, Trump applauded Barr on Twitter for the decision to reverse the sentencing recommendation, writing: “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”
The department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump blasted the recommendation on Twitter as “very horrible and unfair”— and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it. The about-face prompted the four attorneys who prosecuted Stone to quit the case. One left the Justice Department altogether.
“I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said in the ABC interview. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people … about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
Barr has been a steady ally of the president’s since he returned to the top post at the Justice Department last year. He cleared the president of obstruction of justice even when special counsel Robert Mueller had pointedly declined to do so. He declared that the FBI’s Russia investigation, which resulted in charges against Stone, had been based on a “bogus narrative.”
He also appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to lead a criminal inquiry into the origins of the investigation into Russian contacts with the Trump campaign team in 2016, including examining what led the U.S. to open a counterintelligence probe into the campaign and the roles that various countries played.
Barr said he was “of course” prepared to deal with any ramifications from the president for his comments. Administration officials said senior White House aides were not informed of the contents of Barr’s interview before it aired.
“As I said during my confirmation, I came in to serve as attorney general. I am responsible for everything that happens in the department, but the thing I have most responsibility for are the issues that are brought to me for decision,” Barr said in the interview.
Democratic congressman Don Beyer expressed skepticism on Twitter about the claim that Trump has never interfered.
“Barr isn’t objecting to Trump’s political interference with the Justice Department to undermine the rule of law,”
said Beyer. “He’s saying Trump shouldn’t tell everyone about it.”
Meanwhile, the chief judge of the D.C. District Court, Beryl A. Howell, also did something unusual: She issued a statement Thursday on the firestorm around the sentencing.
“The Judges of this court base their sentencing decisions on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them; the applicable sentencing guidelines and statutory factors; the submissions of the parties, the probation office and victims; and their own judgment and experience,” she wrote. “Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.”
During an interview with Geraldo Rivera on Cleveland’s Newsradio WTAM Thursday, Trump said: “What they did to Roger Stone was a disgrace.”
“Now what am I going to do, sit back and let a man go to jail maybe for nine years when murderers aren’t going to jail? You have some of the most serious horrible rapists and everything else. They don’t go to jail for nine years,” Trump said.
Stone is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 20.