Republicans give Barr vote of confidence

Senate Republicans on Tuesday told Attorney General William Barr they've got his back.

The private meeting between GOP senators and the attorney general was the first since a dust-up between Barr and President Trump earlier this month over the president's Twitter habits.

Republicans made clear to the nation's top law enforcement officer that they view him as a valuable and steadying influence within the oftentimes chaotic Trump administration and want him to stay in the job, despite criticisms of his work from both ends of the political spectrum.

"We've got his back," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who described his colleagues as "very much" supportive of Barr during the meeting on Capitol Hill.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said fellow GOP senators "expressed their support for him and the job he's doing," and their desire for him to stay atop the Justice Department "came across loudly and clearly."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said there was no discussion of Barr's role in reducing the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, one of Trump's top political operatives - a controversial move that resulted in four career prosecutors withdrawing from the high-profile case less than 24 hours later.

"There was widespread appreciation for the job he's doing. I think he got a very warm reception," Graham said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Barr after the meeting, telling reporters, "We all have a lot of confidence in him. We think he's doing a terrific job."

Republican senators and aides said there was concern earlier that Barr might step down after coming under fierce attack for his handling of the Justice Department's prosecution of Stone, who was sentenced last week to more than three years in prison.

Career prosecutors at first recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years, sparking a strong public protest from Trump. When senior Justice Department officials intervened and backed off the initial sentence recommendation - calling it "extreme, excessive and disproportionate" - there was an immediate uproar.

More than 2,000 former Justice Department officials who served in Republican and Democratic administrations called on Barr to resign and signed a statement condemning what they described as Barr's "interference in the fair administration of justice."

Barr also came under fire from the right for pushing back against Trump's criticisms of the Justice Department. In an interview with ABC News earlier this month, Barr complained that Trump's tweets make it "impossible for me to do my job."

Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs said he was "so disappointed in Bill Barr," calling it "a damn shame when he doesn't get what this president has gone through," referring to Democratic attacks against the president.

Several news organizations later reported that Barr told people he was thinking about resigning because of the appearance that Trump was interfering with Justice Department decisions.

Those reports sparked alarm among some Senate Republicans, who later said they wanted to use Tuesday's meeting to eliminate any chance that Barr might step down, a move that would inevitably set up a bruising confirmation fight over his successor in an election year.

One Republican senator said the message to Barr was "please stay in that job."

"We don't need to go through another confirmation hearing with somebody else. We appreciate what you're doing, we know what you're dealing with. Ignore it. Keep up the good work," said the GOP lawmaker, who requested anonymity to comment on internal discussions.

The senator pointed to media reports from a week ago asserting that Barr had considered resigning and said that some Senate Republican colleagues personally called Barr in recent days to say: "Hey look, stay the course. We need you."

They delivered that message in unison on Tuesday.

"He enjoys overwhelming support in our conference," McConnell, who invited Barr to address his colleagues, told reporters after the meeting.

Some Republicans, however, said Tuesday that they were skeptical Barr was seriously considering stepping down.

"I never took it seriously, no," said a Senate Republican aide, who said the reporting could have been "overblown."

Some aides and strategists speculated that Barr may have floated the rumor of his possible departure to elicit a strong show of support, which would help bolster his independence if Trump were to try to influence Justice Department policy again.

Even after Barr complained that Trump's tweeting made his job nearly impossible to perform effectively, the president argued he has the "legal right" to intervene in a criminal case.

Barr strengthened his position, though, by asserting his independence and floating the possibility that he would leave government service if pushed too hard, said Gregg Nunziata, a former Senate Judiciary Committee aide.

"I certainly think him making those statements was helpful and somewhat strengthened his position," Nunziata said, referring to Barr's criticism of Trump's tweets.

"It's important for the attorney general to broadcast that while he's a loyal part of the administration that he also has higher loyalty to the rule of law, and I think he did that rather effectively," he said.

"While I'm sure there are times when an individual senator disagrees with the attorney general on one issue or another, I don't think there's a single Republican that would want to see Bill Barr step down," Nunziata added. "I think he's a reassuring presence in the Cabinet."

The accumulation of support for Barr on Tuesday left Democrats disappointed. They had wanted GOP lawmakers to press the attorney general on what they say is blatant politicization within the Justice Department.

"I hope that they'll ask him about it. A lot of Justice Department officials live in Virginia and I'm hearing a lot of morale problems," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. "I can understand why. You don't want to have the nation's law enforcement folks feel demoralized."

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said, "The Justice Department has always shown independence for the good of the country, and it would be nice if he could return the Justice Department to those days."

Jordain Carney contributed.