WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr took a public swipe Thursday at President Donald Trump, saying that the president’s tweets about Justice Department prosecutors and cases “make it impossible for me to do my job.”
Barr made the comment during an interview with ABC News just days after his Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended in a court filing that Trump’s longtime ally and confidant Roger Stone be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. The department didn’t offer an amended number.
Barr himself has been under fire for the Justice Department action, and Thursday’s comment served as a defense of his own integrity. He is a Trump loyalist who shares the president’s views on expansive executive powers.
The remarks, made so quickly after the decision to back away from the sentencing, suggested that Barr was aware the reversal had chipped away at the department’s historic reputation for independence from political sway. But he stopped short of acknowledging wrongdoing by anyone.
Barr said that Trump’s tweets created perception problems for the department that called into question its independence, but he denied there was any order from Trump and said Trump’s tweets did not factor into the decision.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Thursday evening at the White House that Trump tweets to bypass the mainstream press and speak directly to the American people.
“It’s just a different method of communicating with the American people and the president has every right to weigh in,” O’Brien said. “He’s got First Amendment rights, even though he’s president. And he’s got a right to weigh in with his opinions on the big issues of the day and I think he’s going to continue to do that.”
Barr joined a roster of high level aides who have publicly criticized Trump, with the key difference that he is still in his job. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is to publish a book next month detailing his time in the White House including criticism of Trump actions such as his decision to withhold military assistance while seeking a political favor from Ukraine. Former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has largely kept a low profile since leaving the White House, has grown more open about his unflattering assessments of the president.
Earlier this week, Trump applauded Barr on Twitter for the decision to reverse the sentencing recommendation, writing: “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.”
The department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump blasted the recommendation on Twitter as “very horrible and unfair”– and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it. The about-face prompted the four attorneys who prosecuted Stone to quit the case. One left the Justice Department altogether.
“I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said in the ABC interview. “However, 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.”
Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. He’s scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Barr said he was “of course” prepared to deal with any ramifications from the president for his comments.