Trump tweets test Attorney General Barr
President Trump’s tweets are posing a test for Attorney General William Barr as he seeks to maintain credibility at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and present the agency as independent.
Trump’s persistent tweets about the criminal case against his longtime associate Roger Stone have the president wading into a DOJ matter despite a rare and public warning from Barr last week that the president’s public comments about ongoing cases were making it “impossible” for the attorney general to perform his job.
The escalating tensions threaten to strain the president’s relationship with someone who has emerged as one of his most trusted Cabinet members, and they come shortly ahead of Stone’s sentencing date on Thursday.
Some legal observers also question whether Barr can continue to serve in his role now that the president seems to be actively ignoring his requests.
“Barr is at a make-or-break point here. He threw down the gauntlet with his remarks,” said legal analyst Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York. “Any principled public official with any kind of spine … you can’t continue to do your job.”
Barr was reportedly spotted at the White House on Tuesday, fueling speculation about a rift between the attorney general and Trump. But the president dismissed such talk by offering a strong show of support for Barr before departing for a multiday trip out West.
“I have total confidence in my attorney general. I think he is doing an excellent job,” Trump said, calling Barr “a man with great integrity.”
The president also acknowledged that his tweets make Barr’s job harder, though he defended his right to weigh in on social media as he sees fit.
A source close to the White House expects that Trump won’t go out of his way to tweet about the Stone case going forward, but that Barr’s statement will not have the effect of curbing the president’s public statements about DOJ matters.
That scenario could become problematic for the attorney general, who last week urged Trump to lay off tweeting about DOJ cases and said the running “background commentary” was undercutting his ability to lead the department. Barr’s public rebuke came amid internal furor over Trump calling federal prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for Stone a “miscarriage of justice.”
Barr said that before Trump publicly weighed in, DOJ leadership had decided to lessen the sentence recommendation for Stone. He also insisted that Trump never asked him to take any action with respect to a criminal case. The president’s public statements fueled charges of politicization at the Justice Department, culminating in the attorney general’s Thursday interview with ABC News.
“The fact that the tweets are out there and correspond to things we’re doing at the department sort of give grist to the mill, and that’s why I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC.
But Trump has been undeterred,
ignoring appeals from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republican allies who said he should listen to Barr’s advice.
He tweeted one day after Barr’s interview aired that he would have “the legal right” to intervene in the Stone case but that he chose not to, an assertion he repeated on Tuesday while insisting Stone and other campaign associates charged in connection with former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation had been treated unfairly.
Trump is not prohibited by law from intervening in criminal cases, but legal experts say doing so would break with norms adhered to by past occupants of the Oval Office.
“The line is, you don’t get involved in specific criminal cases of any nature, never mind those that have to do with your political allies,” Honig said.
The president tweeted criticism on Tuesday of Judge Amy Berman Jackson, the Obama appointee overseeing Stone’s case, after she was discussed on Fox News, and he followed up by threatening to sue those involved in Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Moscow.
The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on Trump’s tweets.
In a test for Trump, though, the DOJ on Friday said it would not pursue charges against former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whom the president has characterized as a “sleazebag.”
Some Trump allies have directed their annoyance about the handling of Stone’s case at Barr, accusing the attorney general of overseeing a “sloppy” process that spurred the president’s frustrations.
Former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg, who has publicly advocated for a pardon for Stone, voiced skepticism that the DOJ’s response to the Stone case or U.S. Attorney in Connecticut John Durham’s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation would result in satisfactory changes at the department.
“None of the top people will have anything happen to them,” Nunberg predicted. “Not a single thing. They are completely incapable of policing themselves.”
Barr has also come under fire within his own department. The four prosecutors who worked the Stone case stepped away from it after the DOJ said it would lessen their sentencing recommendation; one prosecutor quit his government job entirely. The prosecutors did not provide an explanation for their decisions, but the development was widely interpreted as a sign of protest.
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 2,000 former DOJ employees, many of whom served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, had signed onto an open letter calling for the attorney general to resign.
Still, Trump and Barr remain aligned on many issues. The attorney general is widely viewed as handling the release of Mueller’s report in a way that was most favorable for the president, and he has expressed his belief that the FBI was not justified in the steps it took to investigate Trump’s campaign in the early stages of the Russia probe.
Barr has also tasked Durham with the inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation, a move which Trump’s critics view as a political errand on behalf of the president.
But even when Trump has shared common ground with officials, a single thorny issue can spell trouble for the relationship.
A divide over Mueller’s probe eventually led to the ouster of Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was responsible for carrying out many of the Trump administration’s signature campaign pledges, from implementing a border crackdown to rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
If Trump were to grant a pardon or sentence commutation to Stone or former national security adviser Michael Flynn, it would undoubtedly trigger a fresh firestorm within the DOJ and could create more headaches for Barr.
The president on Tuesday doled out pardons and commutations to nearly a dozen individuals, including ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik and financier Michael Milken.
Trump told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base that he hadn’t yet thought about whether to pardon Stone, Flynn or his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, but that he believed they had been treated unfairly and were victims of a “scam.”
Asked whether he believed Stone deserved to spend any time in jail, Trump demurred.
“You’re going to see what happens,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”