One year in, Democrats frustrated by fight for Trump tax returns
Trump shakes up Justice Department, intelligence community
President Trump is challenging two institutions with crucial roles to play in the next election with a controversial appointment to the intelligence community and tweets directed at the Justice Department.
The intelligence appointment underscored Trump's priority of loyalty over experience, according to critics, while the tweets complicated proceedings at the Justice Department while creating turmoil for Attorney General William Barr.
This has led to stringent criticisms that he is weakening the Justice Department and intelligence community, two institutions with crucial roles to play in the next election.
"You're seeing a real strain on these institutions and the strain is coming in the form of really challenging the norms under which they've operated in the past," said Lisa Monaco, who served as assistant attorney general for national security during the Obama administration.
Trump's appointment of Richard Grenell last week to serve as acting director of national intelligence (DNI) came under fierce criticism from Democrats and other observers. Grenell has been serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany and regularly offers vociferous defenses of Trump and attacks of his critics in the media. But he has little intelligence experience.
"He plainly is completely incompetent to be acting DNI. That's a position that if you're going to be nominated officially, you need 'extensive intelligence experience.' He has none," said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor who served in the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C. for 24 years.
The move followed Attorney General William Barr's intervention to the sentencing recommendation by the Department of Justice against Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump, one day after the president called the seven- to nine-year recommendation "a horrible and very unfair situation."
Barr has since criticized the president's tweets, but that has done little to mollify critics who believe the decision to change the sentencing recommendation was politicized. Every member of the Justice prosecuting team in the Stone case resigned from it after the recommendation switch.
Trump's efforts to strengthen his control come one month after House Democrats tried to impeach and remove him from office over allegations he pressured Ukraine to investigate political foes.
There are now new questions about Russian interference in this year's elections, something the intelligence committee and Justice Department would be expected to police.
Former Justice Department officials described Barr's intervention in the Stone case as "unprecedented."
"In my 15 years of experience, I have never seen that happen before where the attorney general kind of reaches in to overrule the line prosecutors, and even as they were pursuing what was consistent with Justice Department policy," Monaco said. "There is example after example of these institutions being challenged and being put under stress."
Republicans have pushed back on claims of political interference, arguing that Barr's Justice Department has a record of independence in its prosecution decisions, including choosing not to charge former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose role in the start of the 2016 Russia counterintelligence probe came under scrutiny.
"How can you argue that Bill Barr is doing anything but de-politicizing the Department of Justice," said Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), an ally of the president whose name has been floated as a possible permanent DNI appointee.
He called Barr "the same guy whose department did not prosecute Andrew McCabe or Jim Comey despite criminal referrals from the Inspector General." Comey is the former FBI director who has feuded with Trump.
"So the idea that Barr is a Trump loyalist or apologist to me isn't supported at all by those fact patterns," Ratcliffe told The Hill.
Democrats have long felt distrust toward Barr, particularly after the attorney general carefully choreographed the release of former special counsel Robert Mueller's report to argue he is constantly seeking to protect Trump. Barr released a four-page memo laying out the report's main conclusions before the final report was made public, which claimed Trump did not obstruct justice - an assertion Mueller did not make in his report.
While Barr has criticized Trump's tweets as making his job more difficult, the president has shown no signs of changing his behavior.
On Tuesday he criticized the jury forewoman overseeing the Stone case, accusing her of bias.
"There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case. Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of 'Trump' and Stone," Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon while on a flight back from India. "She was totally biased, as is the judge."
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in a hearing scolded Trump and others in the media for criticizing the juror.
While critics have worried that Trump's actions will influence judicial proceedings, Ian Prior, a former Justice Department spokesman under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said he hasn't seen such evidence. But he did say it makes work harder at the Justice Department.
"I can speak from experience here - the tweets made our jobs harder ... not because they feel that they have to change their actions to appease the president. Rather, what makes it harder is that every time there's a tweet, it creates a massive firestorm, which everybody has to deal with from the Office of Public Affairs up through the [deputy attorney general's] office and the attorney general's office, which is a distraction," he said.
Trump allies defended his appointment of Grenell, arguing he's a fine pick.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said he rejected the premise that Grenell's appointment was somehow a challenge to DNI.
"I don't think it challenges institutions at DNI to employ Ric Grenell, someone who will do a fine job in the interim," he said.
It is unclear whom Trump will name as a permanent replacement for the DNI role, but sources confirm he is in discussions with four to five contenders including Ratcliffe and Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah). One source said U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra is the leading contender. The White House has indicated a decision will be made over the next few weeks.
Some former national security officials say they are worried that Trump may seek to install Grenell in his acting DNI role longer than the Federal Vacancies Act allows by naming a successor who would face a tough confirmation battle.
Doing so could allow Trump to keep Grenell in the acting role longer than March 11.
"Whether intentional or unintentional, the White House may be using the nomination process to keep Grenell in place at least until the elections," said Ryan Goodman, who served as special counsel at Department of Defense during the Obama administration.
"Even if someone like Ratcliffe is promptly rejected by the Senate that would restart the clock, and Grenell could remain in place for at the very least another six months," Goodman told The Hill.
Morgan Chalfant contributed.