Attorney General William Barr told ABC News in an interview that aired Thursday that President Trump had never asked him to do anything in a criminal case but advised the president to stop tweeting about the Justice Department, saying it makes it “impossible for me to do my job.”
The remarks are a significant and rare public break by the attorney general from the president, following days of controversy surrounding the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision to lessen a sentence for Trump ally Roger Stone after the president tweeted about his displeasure with the gravity of the original sentence recommendation.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC.
“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody….whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president,” Bill Barr tells @ABC News.
— ABC News (@ABC) February 13, 2020
Barr said “the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” However, he argued that having public statements and tweets made about the department, pending cases and its prosecutors “make 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.”
In a statement following Barr’s interview, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that Trump “wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions.”
“President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country, including the fake news. The President has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law,” Grisham said.
DOJ has insisted that Tuesday’s decision to reduce the sentence recommendation for Stone, a 67-year-old Republican operative and longtime Trump informal adviser, was made before Trump weighed in publicly on it and independent of the White House, though the president’s continued public comments about the sentence have fueled accusations of politicization at the department.
Adding to the speculation, all four of the career prosecutors working Stone’s case resigned from it on Tuesday after the DOJ called for the sentence to be “far less” than the seven-to-nine-year prison term recommended by the attorneys the day prior.
Barr was adamant in the ABC interview that he did not talk to Trump or anyone at the White House about the Stone case, saying he was caught off guard when the sentencing memo was filed Monday night and that it was not the “fair and reasonable” recommendation he had signed off on.
“I was very surprised,” Barr said. “I said that night to my staff that we had to get ready because we had to do something in the morning to amend that and clarify what our position was.”
“Once the tweet occurred, the question was, well now what do I do,” Barr said, referring to the first tweet made by the president that labeled the recommendation “very unfair” and a “miscarraige of justice.”
Trump has celebrated the reduction in Stone’s sentencing recommendation. On Wednesday, he tweeted “congratulations” to Barr for “taking charge” of the case — despite the attorney general having not weighed in on it publicly.
Barr’s remarks in the striking ABC interview could put him at odds with Trump, who insisted Wednesday his tweets did not amount to political interference and continued to publicly criticize the original recommendation for Stone’s sentence and maligned the prosecutors who worked on his case.
“He was treated very badly. Nine years recommended by four people that, perhaps they were Mueller people, I don’t know who they were, prosecutors,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office, referring to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, in which Stone was charged.
“I want to thank the Justice Department for seeing this horrible thing,” Trump said, adding that he did not discuss the matter with DOJ. “They saw the horribleness of a nine-year sentence.”
Trump has also drawn protest from some Republicans on Capitol Hill who said he should not weigh in on pending cases.
Stone was convicted last fall on seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a proceeding. He is due to be sentenced on Feb. 20 — next week.
Trump consistently expresses his belief that Stone and other associates of his presidential campaign ensnared in Mueller’s Russian interference investigation were unfairly treated, raising speculation he could look to pardon them.
The special counsel filed charges against six Trump campaign associates in total, including the president’s short-lived national security adviser Michael Flynn; Mueller concluded the investigation without charging a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow, a result the president has hailed while decrying the probe as a “witch hunt.”
Barr insisted in the Thursday interview that he would not be “bullied” by anyone, including the president, when asked by ABC correspondent Pierre Thomas whether he was prepared for Trump to lash out at him over the comments criticizing his tweets.
“I came in to serve as attorney general. I am responsible for everything that happens in the department, but the thing I have most responsibility for are the issues that are brought to me for decision,” Barr said, harkening back to his remarks during his confirmation hearing last February.
“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 … whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards or the president,” he continued. “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
Barr has withstood scrutiny from Democrats and some legal observers over DOJ’s decision with respect to the Stone sentence. Democrats have demanded answers from the top law enforcement officer; on Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee announced an agreement with Barr for him to testify on March 31 on various matters.
Barr was also criticized over his handling of Mueller’s final report, with some — including Mueller — objecting to the four-page letter that the attorney general penned laying out the investigation’s principal conclusions weeks before releasing the document.
—Updated at 6:10 p.m.