I think its time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases, Barr said in an interview with ABC News, adding that such statements 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, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors and the department that were doing our work with integrity.
Trump takes aim at judge ahead of Roger Stones sentencing
People close to Barr said that in recent months he has become increasingly frustrated with Trumps tweets about the Justice Department. The president, they said, seemed not only to be undercutting his own political momentum but also raising doubts about the departments independence. Trumps tweet complaining that he believed his friend was being treated unfairly proved something of a last straw, they said, because it was so damaging to morale at the department.
Barr was comfortable not being universally beloved by career employees, but he felt the Tuesday tweet raised a bigger problem, giving people reason to question whether the department had been corrupted by political influence, and decided he could no longer remain silent about the presidents public denunciations, these people said.
Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private discussions within the administration.
Beneath that public fight, according to people familiar with the discussions, is a deeper tension between Trump and Barrs Justice Department over the lack of criminal charges against former FBI director James B. Comey and those close to him.
The aggravation has worsened in the past month, these people said, and came to a head Monday when prosecutors on the Stone case filed a recommendation to the court that Stone receive a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for his conviction on charges of obstructing Congress and witness tampering.
On Tuesday, after Trump denounced the move, the Justice Department filed a softer sentencing recommendation, and the four prosecutors who signed the initial court filing quit the Stone case. One quit working for the government entirely.
Prosecutors quit amid escalating Justice Dept. fight over Roger Stones prison term
Barr insisted Thursday that he already planned to modify the sentencing recommendation even before Trumps tweet, but the presidents comments made the department look bad.
Since becoming attorney general last year, Barr has enthusiastically defended the president, much to the frustration of congressional Democrats and some current and former Justice Department officials upset over what they consider an erosion of the agencys independence. Thursdays interview marked a stunning break from that practice.
The attorney general said he was prepared to accept the consequences of his comments.
I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me, he said. He also noted that when he became attorney general last year, he pledged to resist improper influence from any quarter, whether Congress, the White House, or elsewhere.
The president has heaped criticism on a swath of current and former Justice Department officials and a federal judge over prosecutions and investigations involving Trumps former associates and alleged leaking by government officials. But Barr insisted Thursday that Trump has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case. Trump, he said, never talked with him about the Stone sentencing recommendation, and he had not discussed the Roger Stone case at the White House.
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said late Thursday that the president had not lost confidence in his attorney general.
The President wasnt bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions, Grisham said. 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.
The flare-up over the Stone case comes against a backdrop of growing behind-the-scenes anger by the president toward the Justice Department more about who they havent charged with crimes than who they have, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump has tweeted many times that he thinks Comey should be charged with crimes, and he was particularly upset that no charges were filed over the former FBI directors handling of memos about his interactions with Trump. An inspector general report faulted the former director for keeping some of those memos at his home, and for arranging for the contents of one of the memos to be shared with a reporter after Comey was fired in 2017.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred Comeys handling of the memos to prosecutors for possible criminal prosecution, but lawyers quickly determined it was not a close call and did not seek to build a case against the former FBI director.
That sent Trump into a rage, according to people briefed on his comments. He complained so loudly and swore so frequently in the Oval Office that some of his aides discussed it for days, these people said. Trump repeatedly said that Comey deserved to be charged, according to their account.
Can you (expletive) believe they didnt charge him? Trump said that night, these people said. Trump has also wanted charges filed against Comeys former deputy, Andrew McCabe. A separate inspector general investigation concluded McCabe lied to investigators about his role in authorizing disclosures for a Wall Street Journal story in October 2016 about internal FBI tensions over an investigation of the Clinton Foundation. A grand jury in Washington, D.C. seemed poised to make a decision on the case last year before fizzling into inaction.
Trumps anger over the lack of charges against FBI personnel flared again in early January, prompted by two unrelated developments, according to people familiar with the matter.
First, prosecutors updated their position in the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying a sentence of some prison time would be appropriate. Around the same time, The Washington Post reported that Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber tapped years earlier to re-investigate several issues related to vague allegations of corruption against Hillary Clinton had quietly wound down his work after finding nothing of consequence.
Justice Dept. winds down Clinton-related inquiry once championed by Trump. It found nothing of consequence.
Those two developments further enraged the president, according to people familiar with the discussions. These people said that while the public debate in recent days has focused on leniency for Stone, the president is more upset that the Justice Department has not been tougher on his perceived enemies.
In the presidents mind, it is unacceptable that people like Comey and McCabe have not been charged with crimes, particularly if people like Stone and Flynn are going to be treated harshly, these people said.
In recent weeks, these people said, the presidents anger has focused increasingly on Jessie Liu, the former U.S. attorney for D.C., whose office has been handling many of the cases related to Comey and other former FBI officials.
That office has recently conducted interviews in a leak inquiry, eyeing senior FBI officials over news stories in 2017 that discussed a top secret Russian intelligence document that influenced Comeys decision-making process in 2016. Many of investigators questions have seemed focused on the former FBI director.
Federal prosecutors explore years-old media disclosure, raising fears Trump is using Justice Dept. for political gain
Separately, Barr has tapped U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate whether any crimes were committed by FBI and CIA officials in the pursuit of allegations in 2016 that Russia interfered in the election to benefit Trumps campaign.
After learning that the Huber investigation is not likely to produce charges, Trump has become more insistent that Durham finish his work soon, according to people familiar with the discussions. Trump, these people said, wants to be able to use whatever Durham finds as a cudgel in his reelection campaign.
All of that frustration has fed into the public fight over the Stone case.
In Thursdays ABC News interview, Barr said he was surprised by prosecutors first filing in the Stone case, and that the presidents tweet had nothing to do with his decision to soften the Stone sentencing recommendation less than 24 hours after it was filed.
The attorney general said that Tim Shea, the U.S. attorney in D.C., had chatted with him briefly on Monday, before the Stone filing, and told him the prosecutors very much wanted to recommend the seven to nine years to the judge. But Barr claimed that Shea told him he thought that there was a way of satisfying everybody and providing more flexibility.
I was under the impression that what was going to happen was very much as I had suggested, which is deferring to the judge, and then pointing out various factors and circumstances, Barr said.
Barr said when he first saw news reports Monday night of the recommendation that was filed, he thought Gee, the news is spinning this, this is not what we were going to do.
I was very surprised, Barr said. And once I confirmed that thats actually what we filed, 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.
Next came the presidents tweet complaining that Stone was being treated unfairly, which Barr said put him in an untenable position.
Once the tweet occurred, the question is, Well, now what do I do? Barr said. And 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.
Barr said Trump would be within his rights to ask for an investigation in an area that didnt affect his personal interests such as in a terrorism case, or fraud by a bank. But he said an attorney general would not listen to an order to investigate a political opponent.
If he were to say go investigate somebody, and you sense its because theyre a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldnt carry that out, wouldnt carry that out, Barr said.
On Wednesday, Trump praised the departments change of course and singled out Barr specifically.
Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought, Trump wrote on Twitter. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted.
People close to Barr said that tweet of praise frustrated the attorney general because it further cemented the public notion that the attorney general was doing Trumps bidding on the Stone case.
Democrats called earlier this week for the inspector general to investigate the dispute surrounding Stones sentence recommendation.
Stone was convicted by a jury in November. The charges against him were the last filed by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as part of his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The new sentencing recommendation signed by Shea, and a different career prosecutor said the previous guidance could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances. Shea, a former close adviser to Barr at Justice Department headquarters, was installed at the U.S. Attorneys Office last month.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers can only make recommendations about prison sentences. Stone is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20 by U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, whom Trump also targeted this week in tweets complaining about her treatment of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, and suggesting Jackson had, in another case, gone too easy on his Democratic rival in 2016, Hillary Clinton.
Separately on Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of Washington also issued a rare statement responding to President Trumps attacks on Jackson.
The Judges of this Court base their sentencing decisions on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them; the applicable sentencing guidelines and statutory factors; the submissions of the parties, the Probation Office and victims; and their own judgment and experience, Howell said. Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.