AG Barr says Trump tweets 'make it impossible for me to do my job'

Barr insisted in an interview with ABC News that the president "has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case."

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By Dareh Gregorian

Attorney General William Barr on Thursday issued a rare criticism of President Donald Trump, telling ABC News that the president's tweets about Justice Department matters "make it impossible for me to do my job."

"Public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, 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 department that we're doing our work with integrity," Barr said.

Barr's comments came days after the department overruled federal prosecutors in Roger Stone's criminal case, a decision that resulted in all four prosecutors quitting the case.

The prosecutors on Monday had recommended that Stone get seven to nine years in prison, a decision Trump lambasted on Twitter as "disgraceful" overnight.

"This is a horrible and very unfair situation," the president wrote in a followup post on Twitter. "Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!"

Barr told ABC News that he and his staff had decided to recommend a lower sentence before Trump tweeted because they thought the recommended sentence was too long — but the president's criticism put them in a tough spot.

"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," he said.

Barr also told the network that he was "a little surprised" the prosecution team withdrew from the case.

Trump praised Barr for the lower recommended sentence Wednesday, tweeting, "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 has also mocked the original prosecutors in the case and even tweeted criticism of the judge presiding over it.

Barr told ABC News, "I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases."

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Barr's interview that "the president wasn't bothered by the comments at all," but she indicated that Trump would not curb his tweets. She said Trump "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, including the fake news."

Barr has privately told Trump in recent weeks that his public statements on a number of occasions were making Barr’s job increasingly difficult and asked the president to stop, a source familiar with the events told NBC News.

However, the source says Barr did not alert the president to what he would be saying in the interview.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the House impeachment inquiry and Senate trial prosecution of Trump, said Friday that Barr "fools no one" and called him "a witting accomplice to Trump's attack on the rule of law."

"He's only upset that Trump's tweets made the political nature of his intervention obvious," Schiff wrote on Twitter, retweeting Barr's interview with ABC News.

Sources told NBC News this week that Barr has made several moves in recent weeks to take control of legal matters of personal interest to the president.

They include removing the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and replacing her with a Barr pick, as well as recommending a lighter sentence for Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

He also said Monday that the department had "established an intake process" for vetting information from Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and their interactions with Ukraine.

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Barr insisted that Trump has not tried to interfere in Justice Department cases.

"I'm happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case," he said.

"I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody ... whether it's Congress, a newspaper editorial board or the president," Barr told ABC News. "I'm going to 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."

Despite Barr's public complaint about the president's tweets, Trump tweeted again on Friday morning to address the attorney general's remark in the interview that the president has never asked him to intervene in a criminal case. In the tweet, Trump asserted that just because he hadn't asked Barr not to get involved in criminal cases doesn't mean he wouldn't be within his legal right, as president, to do so.

"'The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.' A.G. Barr," Trump wrote. "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!"

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec declined to comment on Trump’s tweet and would not say whether he and Barr have spoken since the attorney general's interview.

Barr, who has long held a broad view of the powers of the presidency, has had a much warmer relationship with Trump than the president had with his predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Trump repeatedly slammed Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Barr told NBC News in December that he believes the FBI may have operated out of "bad faith" when it investigated whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. He's also been personally involved with an ongoing Russia investigation being led by John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, who was Barr's hand-picked choice.

CORRECTION (Feb. 13, 2020, 8:35 p.m. ET): A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misstated the attorney general's first name. He is William Barr, not Robert Barr.

Peter Alexander contributed.