The US attorney general, William Barr, delivered a remarkable public rebuke of Donald Trump on Thursday, saying that the president’s tweets about the Roger Stone case “make it impossible for me to do my job” and that he would not be “bullied or influenced” over justice department decisions.
In an interview with ABC News, the attorney general acknowledged his comments could leave him open to backlash from the president, who is notoriously intolerant of criticism from his aides. But Barr said he was determined to lead the justice department without being influence by outside forces, including the president.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said.
Ignoring Barr’s criticisms, Trump tweeted on Friday morning, denying that he had attempted to interfere in the case but claiming he could have if he wanted to: “‘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!”
Barr’s interview came as he faces fierce criticism from Democrats over his intervention in the case of Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of Trump who was convicted in November. Barr this week overruled prosecutors who had recommended that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison.
The move prompted a crisis of credibility for the US justice system, as top lawyers warned it could undermine the integrity of federal prosecutors, politicize the legal handling of Trump’s friends and enemies, and ultimately threaten democracy itself.
The sense of crisis at the justice department continued to build through Friday, as multiple news outlets reported that Barr has appointed an outside prosecutor to look at the criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Last month, Flynn asked a judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea to charges he lied to the FBI during the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election collusion, accusing prosecutors of “bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the plea agreement”.
Flynn’s petition was denied this week.
According to NBC News, justice department officials have already intervened to help change Flynn’s sentencing recommendations from a six-month sentence to probation.
But the appointment of outside prosecutors to examine cases normally handled by justice department career staff – in Flynn’s case reportedly US attorney for St Louis, Jeff Jensen – points to a broader breakdown of normal procedure. The New York Times, which first reported the Flynn development, said that over the past two weeks outside prosecutors have begun grilling Washington-based prosecutors over a number of cases.
The move corresponds with another Barr decision to allow outside prosecutors to consider material sourced by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, on what Trump and his lawyer have claimed points to corrupt activities concerning Joe Biden and his family in Ukraine.
The justice department also announced Friday that former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe would not be charged over lying to investigators about a media disclosure.
McCabe, who had approved the investigation into alleged links between the 2015 Trump election campaign and Russia-linked operatives, leading to Mueller’s investigation and report, has long been accused of playing partisan politics by the president, who also repeatedly called for McCabe’s prosecution.
In his interview with ABC, Barr emphasized that Trump “never asked me to do anything in a criminal case”, but he acknowledged the president’s comments undercut his authority.
Despite Barr insisting he will not be “bullied” by Trump on justice department matters, some commentators were skeptical that Barr was actually trying to distance himself from the president or was working to protect the justice department from interference.
“I don’t think he’s fit for the office because I think what he’s done is undertake a campaign to undermine the Department of Justice,” former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer, told MSNBC.
Ayer, who preceded Barr as deputy attorney general under George HW Bush, added that Barr’s “pattern of conduct” since becoming attorney general involves “intervening out of usual course to protect Donald Trump”.
Former US attorney Preet Bharara tweeted: “I think Bill Barr is shrewd, deliberate, smart, calculating, careful, and full of it.”
An Obama-era justice department official, Matthew Miller, wrote on Twitter: “Don’t be fooled by this one, people. Barr is telling the president that his impulsiveness is making it politically harder for him to deliver the results he wants. If Trump would just shut up, Barr could take care of him much more effectively.”
“The best indicator of future performance is past performance,” wrote the US congresswoman Val Demings, of Florida. “Attorney General Barr’s past performance was to mislead the American people (about the Mueller Report) in order to cover up wrongdoing by the president. Why shouldn’t we believe that’s exactly what he’s doing now?”
In his interview with ABC, Barr added that public statements and tweets about the department and its pending 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”.
EXCLUSIVE: Attorney General Bill Barr: If the president "were to say ‘go investigate somebody’...and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out." https://t.co/lBtFOWpLkC pic.twitter.com/YcJ0GruGeB— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 13, 2020
He said: “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody ... whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the president. I’m gonna do what I think is right. And you know … I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, responded by saying the president “wasn’t bothered” by Barr’s comments: “[Barr] has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions. President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country.”
The attorney general’s comments come amid an intensifying fallout over the Stone case, after the justice department overruled its own prosecutors who had recommended that Stone, a longtime Trump ally and confidant, be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison. The four prosecutors on the case subsequently resigned in protest.
The department has insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made on Monday night before Trump’s tweet calling the recommended sentence “very horrible and unfair”.
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking on Fox News, said the president should heed Barr’s advice. “I think the president should listen,” McConnell told the host Bret Baier. “If the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, the president should listen to the attorney general.”
Barr is not the only high-profile figure to have criticized Trump this week. On Wednesday, the former White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke out against the treatment of the fired impeachment inquiry witness Alexander Vindman.
Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Agencies contributed reporting