President Trump slapped back Friday at one of his most loyal Cabinet secretaries, a day after Atty. Gen. William Barr took the rare step of rebuking his boss in public, complaining that the president’s tweets and public statements on criminal cases were making his job “impossible.”
In response, Trump tweeted that he had a “legal right” to ask Barr to intervene in a criminal proceeding, a provocative assertion that raised alarms over whether the Justice Department could remain an impartial law enforcement agency, free from political pressure.
The sparring added to days of anger and tumult in the Justice Department after the president slammed career prosecutors who had sought a stiff prison term for Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant, and Barr overruled their sentencing recommendation. The four prosecutors withdrew from the case in protest; one of them resigned.
Barr has been one of Trump’s most helpful defenders — choreographing what critics called a misleading public release last spring of the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and opening investigations into former Justice Department officials whom Trump has publicly criticized.
In a decision likely to rankle the president, however, the Justice Department closed a politically sensitive criminal investigation on Friday into former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, one of Trump’s regular punching bags at campaign rallies and on Twitter for his role in Russia investigation.
McCabe was fired in March 2018, less than two days before he was scheduled to retire and collect his pension, over allegations that he had lied to investigators about disclosures of sensitive information to a reporter. Any prosecution would have been hampered by Trump’s harsh comments and tweets about McCabe, according to former prosecutors.
“At long last, justice has been done in this matter,” McCabe’s lawyers said in a statement Friday. “We said at the outset of the criminal investigation, almost two years ago, that if the facts and the law determined the result, no charges would be brought.”
Since taking office, Trump has lashed out even at close allies whom he deems disloyal. But since the Senate acquitted him of impeachment charges last week, he has settled scores large and small, exacting payback against a highly decorated Army officer at the White House, a U.S. diplomat in Europe, a senior Treasury Department nominee, and others, for their role in the impeachment and other investigations.
Although Stone was convicted of seven felonies, reports that prosecutors had recommended seven to nine years in prison appeared to outrage the president. After denouncing it as a “miscarriage of justice,” Trump sharply criticized the prosecutors, the federal judge and even the forewoman of the jury, suggesting she “had significant bias.”
Trump also cast off other traditional limits on his executive authority. On Thursday, shortly before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited the White House to seek relief from new restrictions on New York residents who return from overseas travel, the president tweeted that New York “must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harassment” of his businesses and taxes.
But Trump’s spat with the Justice Department has created a new crisis point in an administration that careens between them.
In an explosive interview with ABC News on Thursday, Barr expressed frustration with the president’s jarring comments on criminal cases, saying the president’s tweets and public statements were making it “impossible for me to do my job.”
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said, adding that the president had never asked him to intervene in a specific case.
While many White House aides have chafed about Trump privately, or in public after quitting or getting fired, Barr is a rare sitting Cabinet officer to push back in public, saying, “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody.”
Barr warned that the president’s comments “about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending here, and about judges before whom we have cases” raised questions about whether “we’re doing our work with integrity.”
Barr had privately asked Trump on a number of occasions to stop tweeting about criminal matters because the commentary was casting a shadow over the department’s work, according to a personal familiar with the matter.
Barr’s criticism also reflected anger in the broader legal community, which fears Trump’s attempts to interfere in cases involving friends, allies and himself undermines the rule of law. Barr has agreed to testify on March 31 before House Democrats, where he will have to defend his decision to overrule his line prosecutors.
Trump and White House officials were surprised by Barr’s TV broadside, an administration official said. The interview was hastily arranged to allow Barr to explain why he had overruled the initial seven- to nine-year sentencing recommendation, and had filed a second memo the next day that urged the judge to be more lenient.
Barr told ABC he decided to overrule the prosecutors on Monday night, before Trump tweeted his displeasure the next day.
On Friday, Trump fired back on Twitter, quoting Barr saying the president had not asked him to intervene in a criminal case. “This doesn’t mean,” Trump added, “that I do not have, as president, the legal right to do so. I do, but I have so far chosen not to!”
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign advisor and former Stone associate, believes Trump’s pique at Barr is genuine but noted that he held himself back from punching Barr for longer than usual.
“You’ve had a full 14 hours at least between the interview, the news cycle, and his tweet, so that shows some restraint,” he said Friday.
Nunberg said he believes Trump is setting a marker for actions yet to come, including a potential pardon of Stone.
“He’s not going to defer any legal, constitutional authority to anyone at this point, especially having gone through impeachment,” he said.
Given the competing pressures on Barr, both critics and allies have questioned whether his critique of Trump was cleared with the White House in an orchestrated effort to give the attorney general political cover.
White House officials, who said in a statement that “the president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all,” pointed out that Barr is taking Trump’s side on investigations of the president.
Eric Bolling, a conservative television host who speaks with Trump and other White House officials regularly, said “there’s mutual respect for each other,” and that Trump’s tweets are no surprise to Barr.
“Barr’s comments to ABC were more for the American people than to influence President Trump,” he said. “I’m sure he realizes President Trump wouldn’t change his method of information delivery over Barr’s comments.”
Stone was convicted in November of lying to a House committee, obstructing Congress and witness tampering. He is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Feb. 20, and she has the authority to accept or reject the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendations.
Stone’s lawyers submitted court papers Friday demanding a new trial, filing the request and supporting documents under seal, according to news accounts. Jackson, who disclosed the filing in a court order, gave prosecutors until Tuesday to respond, but the legal motion could delay Stone’s sentencing.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, which prosecuted Stone, is also handling the prosecution of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor. Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to FBI agents about his conversations with a Russian diplomat, but he is seeking to withdraw his plea.
The Justice Department is conducting a review of how the investigation and prosecution of Flynn was handled, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person said the probe, which was first reported by the New York Times, is being conducted jointly with the prosecutor assigned to the case, Brandon Van Grack.