Washington • Unbowed by a public rebuke from his attorney general, President Donald Trump says he has the “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases and sidestep the Justice Department’s historic independence. At the same time, it was revealed federal prosecutors have been ordered to review the criminal case of his former national security adviser.
A day after Attorney General William Barr said the president’s tweets were making it “impossible for me to do my job," Trump declared he had the right to ask the agency to intervene in cases but so far has “chosen not to.” It was a rare public flare-up of tensions, simmering for weeks at the upper echelon of the Trump administration, as Barr marked one year on the job Friday.
While Barr complained that Trump's tweets undermine the department's perception as independent from political interference, he has proven to be eager to deliver on many of the president's investigative priorities — often laid out by Trump for all to see on Twitter.
The attorney general stepped in this week to alter the sentencing recommendation that Trump had denounced as too harsh for his ally Roger Stone. Also, Justice Department prosecutors are reviewing the handling of the federal investigation into Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday. And Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney who is conducting a criminal investigation into the origins of the FBI's probe of the 2016 election that morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible Trump-Russia cooperation.
Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its probe of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but his sentencing has been postponed several times after he complained he was misled during his questioning. The U.S. attorney in St. Louis, Jeff Jensen, is working with Brandon Van Grack, a member of Mueller’s team, to review the Flynn case, a Justice Department official said.
As president, Trump technically has the right to compel the Justice Department, an executive branch agency, to open investigations. But historically, when it comes to decisions on criminal investigations and prosecutions, Justice has functioned independently, unmoved and unbound by political sway. And that reputation is important to Barr, as he made clear in an interview Thursday on ABC News.
“I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people ... about cases pending in the department, 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 in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
The attorney general has repeatedly shared the same sentiment in private conversations with the president in recent weeks, telling Trump he was frustrated with the president's public comments and tweets about Justice Department cases, a person familiar with the matter told the AP. The person was granted anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
Barr was directly asked in the ABC interview whether he believed Trump had the authority to direct him to open an investigation.
In many cases yes, such as “terrorism or fraud by a bank or something like that,” Barr said.
However, "If he were to say, you know, go investigate somebody because — and you sense it’s because they’re a political opponent, then an attorney general shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out."
Still, Barr has proven to be a largely reliable ally and defender of presidential power. That includes his preemptive framing of the results from special counsel Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation last year in a manner favorable to Trump when Mueller pointedly said he couldn’t exonerate the president of obstruction of justice.
Trump has publicly and privately threatened payback in the form of investigations against his perceived enemies including former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Director Andrew McCabe, whom prosecutors said Friday they would not charge with lying about leaking. He's also pressed for investigations into political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, especially following Trump's impeachment acquittal over a phone call where he asked Ukraine's leaders to investigate the Bidens.
And Flynn's case has become something of a cause for Trump supporters, who have seized on the former Trump aide's assertion that he was somehow ambushed by the FBI during an interview at the White House.
As for Comey, Trump has tweeted scores of times that he should be charged with crimes. Trump was particularly incensed that no charges were filed over the former FBI director’s handling of memos about his interactions with Trump, according to a White House official and Republican close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.
The president angrily denounced the decision not to charge Comey to aides and berated Barr over it, according to the officials. Aides expected the decision not to charge McCabe could produce a similar angry reaction.
Trump has also repeatedly complained about FBI Director Christopher Wray in recent months, saying that Wray has not done enough to rid the bureau of people who are disloyal to him.
An administration official acknowledged there has been some tension between Trump and Barr in recent weeks, but said Trump still has confidence in his attorney general.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations, said Trump also knows it would be risky to remove Barr ahead of the 2020 election and that it is highly unlikely he could find a suitable replacement before then.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended in a court filing that Trump’s longtime ally and confidant Stone be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. The entire trial team of prosecutors quit the case after the amended filing, and one quit the DOJ altogether.
Barr faced intense criticism over the decision, which followed just hours after Trump tweeted his displeasure about the harsher recommendation. Trump greeted the reversal with another tweet congratulating Barr for taking action, which proved to be a tipping point for the attorney general. He opted for a public interview to air his frustrations with the president while word was sent to the White House just a short time before it aired.
On Friday, Trump quoted one of Barr's comments in the interview: “The president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr — and then Trump added in his tweet — “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!”
Stone is to be sentenced by a federal judge next week. His lawyers filed a motion Friday evening seeking a new trial, though details of the motion remained under seal.
House Democrats frustrated over the Senate’s acquittal of Trump on impeachment charges want answers from Barr about what they see as his efforts to politicize federal law enforcement. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Barr will testify before the panel March 31.
The Justice Department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump blasted the recommendation on Twitter as “very horrible and unfair”— and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it.
Barr joined a roster of high-level aides who have publicly criticized Trump, though the rest left their jobs first. Former national security adviser John Bolton is to publish a book next month detailing his time in the White House, including criticism of Trump actions such as his decision to withhold military assistance while seeking a political favor from Ukraine. And former chief of staff John Kelly, who has largely kept a low profile since leaving the White House, has grown more open about his unflattering assessments of the president.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Deb Riechmann, Lisa Mascaro and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.