The US attorney general, William Barr, publicly rebuked Donald Trump on Thursday, saying that the president’s tweets about the case of Roger Stone “make it impossible for me to do my job” and that he would not be “bullied or influenced” over justice department decisions.
In an interview with ABC News, the attorney general acknowledged his comments could leave him open to backlash from the president, who is notoriously intolerant of criticism from his aides. But Barr said he was determined to lead the justice department without being influence by outside forces, including the president.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC.
The attorney general emphasized Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case”, but he acknowledged the president’s comments undercut his authority.
Despite Barr insisting he will not be “bullied” by Trump on justice department matters, some commentators were skeptical that Barr was actually trying to distance himself from the president.
An Obama-era justice department official, Matthew Miller, wrote on Twitter: “Don’t be fooled by this one, people. Barr is telling the president that his impulsiveness is making it politically harder for him to deliver the results he wants. If Trump would just shut up, Barr could take care of him much more effectively.”
“The best indicator of future performance is past performance,” wrote the US congresswoman Val Demings, of Florida. “Attorney General Barr’s past performance was to mislead the American people (about the Mueller Report) in order to cover up wrongdoing by the president. Why shouldn’t we believe that’s exactly what he’s doing now?”
In his interview with ABC, Barr added that public statements and tweets about the department and its pending 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”.
He added: “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the president. I’m gonna do what I think is right. And you know … I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, responded by saying the president “wasn’t bothered” by Barr’s comments: “[Barr] has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions. President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country.”
The attorney general’s remarkable rebuke comes amid an intensifying fallout over the Stone case, after the justice department overruled its own prosecutors who had recommended that Stone, a longtime Trump ally and confidant, be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison. The four prosecutors on the case subsequently resigned in protest.
The department has insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made on Monday night before Trump’s tweet calling the recommended sentence “very horrible and unfair”.
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking on Fox News, said the president should heed Barr’s advice. “I think the president should listen,” McConnell told the host Bret Baier. “If the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, the president should listen to the attorney general.”
Barr is not the only high-profile figure to have criticized Trump this week. On Wednesday, the former White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke out against the treatment of the fired impeachment inquiry witness Alexander Vindman.
Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Agencies contributed reporting