Trump Again Tweets About Justice Department After Barr Urges a Stop

President says he hasn’t asked AG to intervene in criminal cases, but has the right to do so

WASHINGTON—President Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday morning that he had the right to intervene in criminal cases but hasn’t done so, a day after Attorney General William Barr said the president’s tweets and public statements were making it “impossible” for the attorney general to do his job.

Mr. Trump posted a quotation of Mr. Barr saying that the president had never asked the attorney general to intervene in a criminal case, then added: “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!”

Mr. Barr’s comments on Thursday were a striking criticism of the president in the wake of Mr. Trump’s complaints about the case involving Roger Stone.

I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Mr. Barr said in an interview with ABC Thursday.

Mr. Barr’s statements and Mr. Trump’s response on Twitter came after days of political furor in Washington sparked by Mr. Barr’s decision earlier in the week to overrule prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington who had sought a prison term of between seven and nine years for Mr. Stone.

Mr. Stone, an informal Trump adviser, was convicted in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering, in a case filed by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The intervention on the sentencing—in which top Justice Department officials ordered prosecutors to tell the court that the earlier recommendation was excessive—prompted the resignation of one career prosecutor, the withdrawal of three others from the case, and criticism from Democrats and some in the Justice Department that Mr. Barr had gone out of his way to help an ally of the president.

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) called Mr. Barr one of the Trump administration’s “henchmen” and said his handling of the Stone sentencing “deeply damaged” the justice system.

Trump Praises Barr for ‘Taking Charge’ in Roger Stone Case (Feb. 12)
Prosecutors Quit Roger Stone Case After Justice Department Seeks Less Prison Time (Feb. 11)
In the ABC interview, Mr. Barr said he had already begun the process of amending the department’s sentencing recommendation when “someone walked in and told me…about the president’s tweet,” in which Mr. Trump criticized the sentencing recommendation, calling it a “disgrace.”

“That sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be for the Department of Justice,” Mr. Barr said. He said tweets about the case and other criminal investigations “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.”

Other officials at the Justice Department said the prosecutors involved didn’t learn of any plan to submit a revised filing until after Mr. Trump publicly criticized the original recommendation, leaving them with the impression that Mr. Trump was driving the change.

There is nothing in the law that prohibits the president from talking to senior Justice Department officials about cases he wants pursued or people he wants investigated.

However, Justice Department officials have long sought to maintain the agency’s independence from political influence, under the principle that such decisions about prosecutions are made on the basis of the conduct at issue and the law, rather than for political reasons.

Recent past presidents refrained from speaking about cases, with some exceptions. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both drew criticism for weighing in on investigations concerning political allies, but neither directly criticized the Justice Department or judges as Mr. Trump has repeatedly.

In 2005, Mr. Bush said he believed that House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay Republican in Congress was innocent of money-laundering charges. Mr. DeLay’s 2010 conviction was overturned by an appeals court three years later.

In the midst of an FBI criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton over mishandling of classified information, Mr. Obama told a reporter in 2015: “I don’t think it posed a national security problem.” Mrs. Clinton was never charged.

Prosecutors in the Stone case made their recommendation in keeping with official guidelines, though they also have the authority to forgo a recommendation and leave it to the presiding judge to decide the sentence.

“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody…whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board or the president,” Mr. Barr said. “I’m going to do what I think is right.”

In a statement, Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary, said of Mr. Barr’s remarks: “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.” She added: “The president has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law.”

Mr. Barr’s critics said his intervention in the Stone case and many other decisions strongly favor the president’s interests—such as when Mr. Barr publicly expressed his misgivings about Mr. Mueller’s report. Such moves, critics said, erode the department’s tradition of independence in law enforcement and potentially undermine prosecutors in future cases.

Mr. Barr, 69 years old, has told friends he isn’t driven by concern for his reputation. When a reporter asked him last year if he worried about his legacy, he responded: “Everyone dies.”

Still, Mr. Barr’s associates had become concerned in recent days about the perception that he was taking directives from the president on matters including Mr. Stone’s sentencing recommendation, a person familiar with the matter said.

On Thursday morning, Justice Department officials contacted allies of the attorney general to ask them to make the case that Mr. Stone’s sentencing recommendation by the prosecutors had been absurd and that Mr. Barr “could not let this stand,” the person said.

The person characterized the message from the Justice Department as: “It would be good to rally around the flag a little bit.”

“He has a lot of credibility with the boss, so he can afford to be a little critical,” the person said of Mr. Barr’s statements about Mr. Trump. “It’s not a Sessions situation”—a reference to Mr. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was frequently the target of Twitter broadsides from the Oval Office.

Prominent Republicans also have defended Mr. Barr and expressed disapproval of Mr. Trump’s tweets. On Wednesday, Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) called the Stone controversy the result of an “unfortunate miscommunication” and nothing more sinister, but said Mr. Trump’s tweet “aggravated the situation.”

A national association representing assistant U.S. attorneys around the country issued a statement Thursday saying the Stone prosecutors had appropriately recommended a guideline sentence and warned against such decisions being made by political appointees.

Since being confirmed a year ago, Mr. Barr has intervened personally in a number of contentious issues. Neither Mr. Barr nor his handpicked deputy, Jeffrey Rosen, worked as a line prosecutor within the Justice Department, though Mr. Barr served a previous stint as attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration. Mr. Barr has long advanced an expansive view of executive authority and views himself as a defender of the office of the presidency against what he sees as an erosion of presidential power by congressional Democrats and other Trump opponents.

Much of Mr. Barr’s legal experience stems from decades of work as a corporate defense and telecom industry lawyer. The combination, associates say, has

  • given him a disdain for government bureaucracy,
  • a short fuse for indecision and a
  • tendency to find it more efficient to make a call himself.

“Bill Barr has the intestinal fortitude that comes with his convictions,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor. “If he believes that trial prosecutors have exceeded their instructions he is not someone who is going to be deterred by the optics of the moment.”

To some degree, Mr. Barr’s time on the job—Friday is the first anniversary of his confirmation—has brought to the fore the conflict inherent in the role of an attorney general, who is at once supposed to be the nation’s top law-enforcement officer free of politics but at the same time a backer of the president’s policy agenda. Democrats say he has strayed too far toward favoring the president.

Mr. Barr made waves early on by sending a March 24 letter to Congress summarizing Mr. Mueller’s report in a way that Mr. Mueller himself and many others said failed to describe the investigators’ account of the extensive efforts Mr. Trump took to curtail their inquiry.

Rather, Mr. Barr said that Mr. Mueller hadn’t made a decision on charging the president and that he and his then-deputy, Rod Rosenstein, had determined the president committed no crime.

He later defended the letter as an attempt to summarize a 400-page report in four pages, and pointed to his decision to release the full, redacted report as evidence that he wasn’t trying to hide anything or protect Mr. Trump.

In the Stone case, several of the prosecutors involved had threatened to withdraw from the case on Monday if supervisors mandated a request for a downward revision to their recommendation, according to people familiar with the matter.

The prosecutors’ original sentence recommendation included language that acknowledged the court should consider whether the factors underpinning it were appropriate. Some supervisors of the line prosecutors thought that would quell any concern among senior leadership that they were pushing for an excessive punishment, the people said.

But Mr. Barr was surprised by the language that said Mr. Stone “should be punished in accord” with the guidelines, and worked with his staff in the top tier of the Justice Department to develop the revised filing.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson is scheduled to sentence Mr. Stone on Feb. 20. She has the discretion to ignore the government’s sentencing recommendations and could ask the government to explain the change.

On Thursday, the chief judge of the court, Beryl Howell, issued an unusual statement defending the role of judges. “Public criticism or pressure is not a factor” in sentencing decisions, she said.