The US attorney-general publicly rebuked Donald Trump on Thursday, saying the president’s tweets about ongoing criminal cases had made it “impossible” to do his job.
The reprimand by William Barr in an interview with ABC News followed intense criticism of the Department of Justice this week after it sought a more lenient sentence for a close associate of Mr Trump’s following a presidential tweet that attacked prosecutors’ handling of the case.
All four prosecutors quit the case against Roger Stone, a longtime friend of the president, when Mr Barr withdrew their initial sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years in jail. Mr Trump had called the proposal a “miscarriage of justice”.
The president has since attacked not just the prosecutors, one of whom quit the DoJ entirely, but the judge who is overseeing Mr Stone’s case, Amy Berman Jackson.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” said Mr Barr, insisting that he had made his decision on the sentencing recommendation independently of the White House.
“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody, whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president. I’m going to do what I think is right,” he said.
“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he added.
The remarks were a significant break for Mr Barr, who the president appointed after firing his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, and were some of the starkest public criticisms yet of Mr Trump by a serving cabinet member.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate judiciary committee and a key ally of the president, came to the attorney-general’s support following the interview.
“He is the right man at the right time to reform the Department and stand up for the Rule of Law,” he said in a statement. “Attorney-general Barr has my complete confidence.”
A White House spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Also on Thursday, Beryl Howell, the chief district court judge in Washington, where Stone will be sentenced next week, said in a statement: “The Judges of this Court base their sentencing decisions on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them; the applicable sentencing guidelines and statutory factors; the submissions of the parties, the Probation Office and victims; and their own judgment and experience. Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.”
Mr Barr has been viewed as a loyal and effective defender of Mr Trump, clearing him of wrongdoing at the close of the Russia investigation and opening his own probe into its origins.
More recently, the DoJ decided not to open an investigation into Mr Trump’s contacts with Ukraine, over which the president was impeached but ultimately acquitted by the Senate.
On Monday, Mr Barr said he had created an “intake process” to check information from Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s personal attorney, about Joe Biden, a political rival of the president, even though Mr Giuliani’s conduct was a key question in the impeachment case.
The attorney-general, a DoJ veteran who also headed the department in the George H.W. Bush administration, has largely shrugged off criticism from opponents of Mr Trump, even taking aim at them in overtly political speeches.
“It is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law,” he said last November.
But any simmering concerns about Mr Barr turned into a firestorm of criticism on Tuesday after the events in the Stone case, where Mr Trump has stoked concerns by continuing to weigh in on the prosecution
“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,” he tweeted on Wednesday after the DoJ had withdrawn its 7-9 year sentencing recommendation.
US presidents in recent decades have generally, though not always, abided by a norm of avoiding commentary about justice department cases. Mr Trump has shattered that norm with repeated public comments about ongoing criminal cases, as well as attacks on prosecutors and judges.
The president first tweeted about Mr Stone’s sentence shortly after midnight on Monday night. Mr Barr said Thursday he had made the decision to reverse course on the sentencing before the tweet.
“Do you go forward with what you think is the right decision or do you pull back because of the tweet? And that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be,” he said.
In the interview, the attorney-general acknowledged that the events in the Stone case had damaged morale in the justice department.
“To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, makes 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,” he said.