WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr delivered an extraordinary rebuke of President Donald Trump on Thursday, saying that his attacks on the Justice Department had made it “impossible for me to do my job” and that “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody.”
Barr has been among the president’s most loyal allies and denigrated by Democrats as nothing more than his personal lawyer, but he publicly challenged Trump in a way that no sitting Cabinet member has.
“Whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards or the president, I’m going to do what I think is right,” Barr said in an interview with ABC News, echoing comments he made a year ago at his confirmation hearing. “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
Barr’s remarks were aimed at containing the fallout from the department’s botched handling of its sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone, who was convicted of seven felonies in a bid to obstruct a congressional investigation that threatened the president. After career prosecutors initially recommended a sentence of seven to nine years in prison, Trump spent days attacking them, the department and the judge presiding over Stone’s case.
Such tweets “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,” Barr said.
He added, “It’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases.”
The fallout from the Stone episode threatened to spin out of control after the four prosecutors on the case withdrew from it and Trump widened his attacks on law enforcement, thrusting Barr into a full-blown crisis. Career prosecutors began to express worry that their work could be used to settle political scores and doubts that he could protect them from political interference.
Barr had been contemplating how to respond since he became aware of Trump’s attacks on the department, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Speaking up could have put Barr at risk of losing the backing of the president, but remaining silent would have permitted Trump to continue attacking law enforcement and all but invited open revolt among the some 115,000 employees of the Justice Department.
Ultimately, Barr concluded that he had to speak out to preserve his ability to do his job effectively, the person said.
Trump did not immediately respond on Twitter, but his press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, played down the attorney general’s remarks. “The president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all, and he has the right, just like every American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” she said, adding that Trump has confidence in his attorney general.
Republicans in Congress rushed to voice support for Barr, urging the president to heed his advice. “If the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, maybe the president should listen,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, said in an interview on Fox News.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who is close to the president, said in a statement that the attorney general was “the right man at the right time to reform the department and stand up for the rule of law.”
In the interview, Barr declared his independence in what amounted to an explicit challenge for a president who prizes loyalty over almost anything.
“The thing I have most responsibility for are the issues that are brought to me for decision,” Barr said. “And I will make those decisions based on what I think is the right thing to do, and I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody.”
Trump has made it difficult for Barr to maintain the appearance of independence, threatening the attorney general’s credibility by repeatedly calling for federal investigations of his own perceived enemies. Trump suggested to the president of Ukraine on a July call that helped prompt impeachment that he work with Barr and the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to investigate some of Trump’s political opponents.
Justice Department officials have sought to distance Barr from the episode, saying that he did not know the president named him on the call and that he had no contact with Ukraine about any such cases.
Barr, whose expansive views on executive power are well established, said in the ABC interview that presidents have the right to ask law enforcement officials to scrutinize issues outside their personal interests, like terrorism or bank fraud, but he drew a line at interventions for personal benefit.
“If he were to say, ‘Go investigate somebody,’ and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out,” Barr said.
But given Barr’s remarkable deference to Trump’s interests until now, critics of the attorney general were loath to accept his comments at face value, seeing them mainly as a face-saving way to deflect responsibility for his own role in carrying out the president’s political wishes.
Joe Lockhart, a White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said that it was “impossible to believe” that after all he had done to advance Trump’s political interests “that now Barr is genuinely upset.”
“The tell here will be Trump’s reaction,” he added. “If he doesn’t lash out, we’ll all know this was pure political theater because everyone agrees Trump has no self-restraint.”
Barr said in the interview that he did not see the president’s comments Tuesday about the Stone sentencing before he decided to lower the recommendation — he reads only tweets that aides show to him, he said — and acknowledged that Trump’s behavior boxed him into a corner.
“Do you go forward with what you think is the right decision or do you pull back because of the tweet?” Barr said. “That just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be.”
Yet Barr shared Trump’s dim view of the initial Stone sentencing request, a senior administration official noted.
Officials on Tuesday blamed the original filing on a miscommunication and said they had intended to correct it even before Trump assailed it.
Barr detailed his account of the dramatic week. The U.S. attorney in Washington, Timothy Shea, a longtime Barr adviser who started the job only last week, briefed him Monday about the prosecutors’ desire for the longer sentence, Barr said. He suggested that the prosecutors instead lay out factors for Judge Amy Berman Jackson to consider in sentencing Stone but defer to her on the length of the sentence.
“He thought there was a way of satisfying everybody and providing more flexibility,” he said of Shea. Barr added, “I was under the impression that what was going to happen was very much what I had suggested.”
Instead, the prosecutors stuck to their recommendation, surprising Barr, he said, and angering the president.
Trump also accused the prosecutors of engaging in an “illegal” investigation of Stone. He incorrectly accused Jackson, who presided over multiple cases from the special counsel inquiry, of placing his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in solitary confinement.
The chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, Beryl Howell, issued a rare public response to the president’s attacks Thursday, saying that “public criticism or pressure is not a factor” when judges make sentencing decisions.
Trump also attacked Robert Mueller, the former FBI director and special counsel, putting Barr in an especially awkward position. “Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!” the president wrote on Twitter this week, accusing him of a felony, which, if true, the attorney general would presumably be obliged to prosecute.
The president did not explain at the time what he meant, but on Geraldo Rivera’s radio show Thursday said he was referring to Mueller’s denial during congressional testimony that he had applied to replace James Comey as FBI director before becoming special counsel.
“He wanted to be the director again,” Trump told Rivera. “And I told him, basically, ‘You’ve had enough time.’ And then within a very short period of time, he was appointed special prosecutor.”
Trump has made this claim before without offering evidence for it. Mueller has said he agreed to see Trump during his search for a new FBI director as a courtesy to offer advice, not to seek the job, a recollection confirmed by Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist.
Barr quickly became one of Trump’s trusted advisers after taking office last February, erasing tensions between the White House and the Justice Department that had flourished under Barr’s predecessor Jeff Sessions, whom the president soured on after Sessions recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation.
Barr also quickly became one of Trump’s most articulate and nimble defenders. But detractors accused Barr of playing partisan politics when he released his own summary of the Mueller report that proved to underplay investigators’ most serious findings against the president and when he cleared Trump of obstruction of justice after Mueller declined to make a determination.
The attorney general has since authorized a criminal investigation into the roots of the Mueller inquiry and publicly challenged an inspector general’s finding that the FBI had adequate reason to begin investigating the Trump campaign’s links to Russia.