Donald Trump ignored his attorney-general’s plea to stop tweeting about the Department of Justice on Friday as he asserted the “legal right” to direct criminal cases as he wished.
The president responded to the dramatic rebuke delivered a day earlier by William Barr with a defiant tweet about the broad scope of his powers that quoted the attorney-general’s denial that Mr Trump had interfered in any criminal cases.
“‘The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.’ A.G. Barr This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!” Mr Trump tweeted early on Friday morning.
Mr Barr scolded Mr Trump to stop tweeting about the justice department in an ABC News interview on Thursday, following the fallout over the sentencing of Roger Stone, a close ally of the president, which resulted in four prosecutors quitting the case.
When the prosecutors recommended a prison term of up to nine years for Mr Stone, who is set to be sentenced next Thursday, Mr Trump publicly cried foul in a late night tweet. The justice department subsequently reversed course.
Mr Barr has insisted he made the decision to walk back the sentencing recommendation before Mr Trump tweeted, arguing that the DoJ’s senior leadership had been surprised that the prosecutors on the case recommended a 7-9 year sentence.
A spokeswoman for Mr Barr did not immediately return a request for comment on Mr Trump’s tweet. On Thursday, the White House said Mr Trump “wasn’t bothered” by the attorney-general’s criticisms of his tweeting.
The events have raised questions about Mr Barr’s leadership of the DoJ, which has long sought to avoid any appearance of political influence in its decision-making, particularly in criminal cases.
The attorney-general has been a stalwart defender of Mr Trump since his Senate confirmation a year ago, joining in the president’s criticisms of the Russia investigation and publicly attacking “the Left”.
A former attorney-general from the George HW Bush administration, Mr Barr has long held expansive views about the authority of the president to intervene in DoJ matters. In a 2018 memo before his appointment, Mr Barr said the president faced “no legal prohibition” on involving himself in criminal cases, only political constraints, including impeachment by Congress.
But the uproar over his decision to overrule the sentencing recommendation of career prosecutors in a case involving an ally of the president has put the veteran lawyer on the back foot.
The four prosecutors who secured Mr Stone’s conviction at trial for lying to Congress and witness tampering quit the case on Tuesday in protest at Mr Barr’s actions. One quit the justice department altogether.
Mr Trump’s subsequent tweets added further fuel to the controversy as he attacked the prosecutors and even criticised the judge overseeing the case. His attacks drew a rare public response from the chief district judge in Washington DC, who said in a statement that “public criticism or pressure is not a factor” in the court’s sentencing decisions.
“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” Mr Barr said on Thursday as he sought to reassure DoJ staff that he was not being influenced by the president’s tweets.
“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.