US Attorney General William Barr on Thursday delivered a highly unusual public rebuke of US President Donald Trump, saying that the president’s tweets were making his job at the US Department of Justice “impossible.”
“I have a problem with some of the tweets,” Barr said in an interview with ABC News, adding: “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said.
His interview came as Trump stands accused of interfering with the sentencing recommendation for former adviser Roger Stone — prompting four department prosecutors to resign from the case earlier this week.
The outburst was all the more remarkable as Barr has emerged as a powerful defender of Trump, earning the nickname of the “president’s attorney” from critics.
Barr has been at the center of allegations that he decided — allegedly under pressure from Trump — to overrule his own prosecutors and seek a lighter prison sentence for Stone.
He has previously been criticized by US Democrats and legal experts for seeming to assist Trump during an independent investigation into whether the president was helped by a Russian influence campaign during the 2016 US presidential election.
The two men are so close that there was immediate speculation that Barr’s interview might have been more about managing public opinion than a real outcry against Trump’s alleged interference in judicial affairs.
The controversy came about a week after the US Senate acquitted Trump of impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of the US Congress related to pressure on Ukraine to announce investigations, including into former US vice president Joe Biden.
Another staunch Trump ally, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, supported Barr’s comments about the tweets.
“If the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, maybe the president should listen to the attorney general,” McConnell told Fox News.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said that Trump had “full faith” in Barr.
“The president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all,” she said in a statement.
Unlike any president before him, Trump frequently uses social media to broadcast his opinions and decisions without going through traditional statements to the media.
Grisham indicated that Barr’s comments would not change that, referring to the White House’s frequent claim that professional media organizations misrepresent Trump and therefore need to be bypassed.
Trump uses Twitter in particular to make instant, high-impact interventions, often reacting to events in real time.
In the latest case, he used his Twitter pulpit to speak out in defense of veteran Republican consultant Stone.
Stone was in November last year convicted of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing a US House of Representatives investigation into the Russia 2016 election affair.
Trump has denied that his tweets attacking the original sentence of 87 to 108 months recommended for Stone — and in support of Barr after it was reduced by more than half — amounted to political interference.
In the interview, Barr said that he had been “surprised” by the sentencing recommendation filed by prosecutors on Monday, and was intending to “amend and clarify” the department’s position the following day — when Trump fired off his tweet.
“Once the tweet occurred the question was: ‘Now what do I do?’ 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.
“I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,” he said. “Whether it’s Congress, newspaper editorial boards or the president, I’m going to do what I think is right.”
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