Washington: Attorney General William Barr said Donald Trump’s tweets and public comments about the Justice Department and ongoing cases make his job “impossible,” a rare public rebuke of the president by one of his most trusted Cabinet members.
“It’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said in an interview with ABC News on Thursday.
While Barr added “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” it wasn’t clear whether Barr was giving Trump an ultimatum or just trying to provide frank advice to the president.
The reaction from the White House indicated Trump wasn’t upset and retained his confidence in Barr.
“The president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all, and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country, including the fake news.”
Regardless, it was the first time Barr spoke publicly since his department was thrust into a crisis when it reversed course this week on a recommendation about how long Roger Stone, one of Trump’s longtime associates, should go to prison for witness tampering and lying to Congress.
“To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, 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 said.
The move to reduce the recommended prison time for Stone prompted four career prosecutors to quit the case but earned Barr praise from Trump. It fueled criticism that the Justice Department has become politicized and is more focused on protecting the president’s political allies than maintaining independence.
Barr Unleashes Justice Department Turmoil Over Stone Case
“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,” Trump tweeted after the new recommendation was made.
On Monday, the prosecutors had asked the judge overseeing the case to sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison. The next day, after the president had tweeted his opposition to the recommendation, the department switched gears and said that Stone should serve three to four years. The department also called on the judge in the case to account for the 67-year-old Stone’s “advanced age, health, personal circumstances and lack of criminal history.”
The attorney general said he’d already decided to reduce the recommended sentence that was filed by prosecutors on Monday, telling his staff “we had to do something in the morning to amend that and clarify what our position was.” But then he said he had to consider the effect of Trump appearing to dictate to the department.
“Do you go forward with what you think is the right decision or do you pull back because of the tweet? And that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be,” he said, ABC reported on its website.
Stone is due to be sentenced on February 20. Barr said he’s “not a fan of Roger Stone, but he’s entitled” to the “careful application of the law to his case.”
Judge Beryl A. Howell, the chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, responded Thursday to the politics swirling around the sentencing recommendation.
“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 said in a statement. “Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.”
The change to the sentencing recommendation was the second politically charged move revealed by Barr’s department this week.
On Monday, Barr said he had created a special channel for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to share his “findings” on former Vice President Joe Biden’s connections to Ukraine - an issue that played a central role in Trump’s impeachment and trial.
Separately, the top law enforcement agency is also considering leniency in the sentencing of another former Trump confident, Michael Flynn, who resigned as the president’s first national security adviser after three weeks in the job.