The latest developments — reexamining the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn and deciding against criminal charges for former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — came just a day after the attorney general said Trump should not publicly insert himself into Justice Department affairs.
Less than 24 hours after Barr’s stunning ABC News interview, in which he called on Trump to stop tweeting about the department and its employees, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would not bring charges against McCabe, once a target of frequent attacks by Trump.
Later that day, The New York Times reported that Barr had taken the unusual step of asking outside prosecutors to review the criminal case against Flynn, a close ally of the president.
The reexamination of Flynn’s case is sure to spark criticism from Democrats, who just days earlier had accused Barr of political interference after the DOJ recommended a lesser sentence against longtime Trump associate Roger Stone. That revised recommendation came a day after Trump tweeted that the initial sentence of seven to nine years was “ridiculous.”
A group of Democratic senators sent Barr a letter Friday, discounting his claims that the DOJ is independent from Trump’s wishes.
“It appears to show that you and other top DOJ officials intervened in a clearly political fashion to undermine the administration of justice at the President’s behest in order to protect a well-connected political ally,” the senators wrote, referring to Stone’s case.
Barr is also facing a possible shift in support among Republicans, who went from praising his conduct to criticizing him for saying Trump is “making it impossible to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we are doing our work with integrity.”
“I am so disappointed in Bill Barr,” Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs, a vocal supporter of the president, said Thursday night. “It is a damn shame when he doesn’t get what this president has gone through and what the American people have gone through and what his charge is as attorney general.”
The ABC interview came amid the rockiest week of the case against Stone, a right-wing provocateur who was convicted in November of seven counts of obstructing and lying to Congress as well as witness tampering. Those charges were tied to his role in providing the Trump campaign with inside information about WikiLeaks in 2016.
Career prosecutors at the Justice Department recommended Monday that a federal judge sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison.
Trump then weighed in via Twitter, calling the sentencing recommendation “a horrible and very unfair situation.”
The following day, the Justice Department backpedaled, arguing Stone should serve “far less” than the initial recommendation.
The move raised questions about potential White House interference and prompted the team of prosecutors who made the initial sentence recommendation to withdraw from the case.
Democrats have called for investigations into the matter, but they haven’t taken any formal steps. The growing scrutiny comes as Democrats are grappling with what to do now that their most potent oversight tool — impeachment — has already been deployed and resulted in acquittal.
It’s unclear whether the controversial DOJ decisions were made before or after the flare-up over the Stone case, but the quick timing of Barr’s ABC News interview followed by the announcement not to pursue charges against McCabe gave the impression that Barr may be seeking to repair DOJ’s optics and assert its independence.
“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president,” Barr told ABC correspondent Pierre Thomas, maintaining that Trump had never asked him to do anything in a criminal case.
Barr’s remarks marked a departure from fellow Cabinet members who had quietly and privately pushed for the president to tone down his rhetoric on Twitter.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said. “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
On Friday morning, Trump appeared to glide right past his attorney general’s request, asserting in a tweet that as president he has “the legal right” to insert himself into DOJ’s handling of criminal cases.
Trump did not take aim at his top cop, but he could be pushed in that direction if the president’s allies turn on Barr for not pursuing McCabe, who has long been a Republican target.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. informed McCabe’s counsel on Friday that they will no longer seek criminal charges against McCabe, closing a high-profile case against the former official whose conduct during the 2016 election came under intense scrutiny.
McCabe was fired from the FBI in March 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz provided a recommendation to an internal FBI office that said McCabe was not forthcoming during interviews with federal investigators and that he “lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.”
Trump has attacked McCabe and other former FBI and DOJ officials, alleging they conspired to stop him from becoming president.
Congressional Democrats, who have long questioned Barr’s leadership of the DOJ, will soon have their chance to grill him in a public setting. The attorney general is slated to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on March 31.
And while the Stone, Flynn, McCabe cases are likely to be raised during his Capitol Hill appearance, those topics may face stiff competition from any new information in former national security adviser John Bolton’s book, which is slated for publication on March 17.
“In your tenure as Attorney General, you have engaged in a pattern of conduct in legal matters relating to the President that raises significant concerns for this Committee,” Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said in a statement.
“In the past week alone, you have taken steps that raise grave questions about your leadership of the Department of Justice,” the Democratic lawmakers added, referring to the Stone case. “These are not the only issues that our Committee intends to discuss with you when you appear, but they are enough to require our immediate attention.”