WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr agree on one thing at least: The president is making the attorney general’s job much harder. What they don’t agree on: Trump sees no reason to stop.
Defying Barr’s pleas, the president renewed his public attacks on law enforcement Tuesday, denouncing the prosecutors, judge and jury forewoman in the case of his longtime friend Roger Stone and defending his convicted former adviser Michael Flynn against Trump’s own Justice Department.
Explicitly rebuffed, Barr was left by the end of the day to consider his own future. He expressed dissatisfaction to associates, and his irritation soon fed news reports that he was considering resignation if the president continued to publicly weigh in on individual prosecutions of his own associates. But it was unclear whether that would persuade Trump to back off or only get his back up.
The suggestions of resignation came at the end of a day when the president asserted his dominance over a justice system that had long sought to insulate itself from political pressures. Calling himself “the chief law enforcement officer of the country,” Trump demanded a new trial for Stone, urged federal judges to address the “tremendous” abuse of the special counsel investigation of his campaign and bypassed the traditional pardon process to grant clemency to celebrity convicts recommended by his friends, allies and political donors.
Trump insisted he had not directly interfered in the prosecution of advisers like Stone and Flynn but declared again that he had the power to if he wanted and that, at the very least, he planned to speak out for them. “You take a look at what’s happening to these people,” he told reporters. “Somebody has to stick up for the people.”
In doing so, Trump acknowledged that Barr was right last week when he said that the president was making it “impossible” for him to do his work. “I do make his job harder,” Trump said. “I do agree with that. I think that’s true.”
But while he praised Barr’s “incredible integrity” and avowed “total confidence” in him, Trump dismissed the suggestion that he stop discussing individual cases. “Social media for me has been very important because it gives me a voice, because I don’t get that voice in the press,” he said. “In the media, I don’t get that voice. So I’m allowed to have a voice.”
Even as he refused to take Barr’s advice, Trump expressed no anger toward his attorney general, and some officials said he understood why Barr felt the need to complain last week to ABC News about the presidential tweets. But The Washington Post reported Tuesday night that Barr was thinking about stepping down if the president’s tweets continued, a story confirmed by an administration official and seemingly aimed at an audience of one.
Barr was especially irritated by the president’s tweet Tuesday morning denigrating Judge Amy Berman Jackson shortly before she was to hold a conference call with lawyers in Stone’s case. Trump insisted in his tweet that she order a new trial for Stone but the Justice Department then disclosed that it opposed just such a retrial, a position personally approved by Barr.
The attorney general then had lunch with Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel and a longtime friend and colleague, in what officials said was a previously scheduled get-together. While Barr has been incredibly frustrated and has a limit to what he will put up with, people who know him said they doubted he would give in so quickly.
An abrupt departure by Barr would roil a Justice Department on track to deliver several initiatives important to Trump, including an overhaul of the FBI, a criminal investigation into the origins of the Russia inquiry and a continuing leak investigation into James Comey, the former director of the FBI. It would also leave the president with a vacancy at the top of the Justice Department that might be hard to fill eight months before the election.
Barr has taken heat from critics both inside and outside his department over what they see as the politicization of the law enforcement system. More than 1,100 former Justice Department officials have called for Barr’s resignation, and a group representing the nation’s federal judges scheduled an emergency telephone conference to address the president’s attacks on one of their own.
The Justice Department dismissed suggestions Tuesday night that Barr’s departure was imminent. “Addressing Beltway rumors: The Attorney General has no plans to resign,” Kerri Kupec, the department spokeswoman, wrote on Twitter. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, retweeted Kupec’s message.
The president told reporters on Tuesday that Stone, an off-and-on adviser, and Flynn, a campaign adviser before serving briefly as his national security adviser, were both “treated very unfairly.” He called Stone’s conviction “a very, very rough thing” and said that Flynn’s “life has been destroyed.”
Stone, who was convicted in November of seven felonies for obstructing a congressional inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to WikiLeaks, which disseminated Democratic emails stolen by Russian agents, is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with Russian officials but wants to withdraw his plea.
Asked whether he was considering pardons for Stone, Flynn or Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman convicted on tax and other financial fraud charges, Trump said, “I’m not even thinking about that.” But aides said he had broached the idea, and critics said Tuesday’s pardons and commutations for convicted political figures like Rod Blagojevich and Bernard Kerik sent a clear message to the president’s associates that he may yet clear them.
“The real test will be, what does this president do with Stone, Manafort and others who are directly connected to him and who have the ability to provide information that is harmful to him?” said Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama.
On Twitter, Trump cited a “Fox & Friends” legal analyst, Andrew Napolitano, who has insisted that the president “has every right” to intervene in a criminal case. He quoted Napolitano’s calls for Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to reconsider Stone’s case.
“Judge Jackson now has a request for a new trial based on the unambiguous & self outed bias of the foreperson,” Trump tweeted, quoting Napolitano.
Jackson ruled Tuesday morning that Stone’s sentencing would go forward as planned Thursday despite last-ditch motions by his defense lawyers. She said she would allow the defense to file an amended motion for a new trial, give the government a chance to respond with its own filing and schedule a hearing if warranted. Defense lawyers argue that juror misconduct led to an unfair trial.
The handling of Stone’s case has generated tumult throughout the Justice Department and grabbed the attention of Washington’s broader legal establishment. After Barr scrapped the original sentencing recommendation in favor of a lighter one, the four career prosecutors handling the matter withdrew from the case, and one resigned from the department entirely.
As the president has repeatedly pointed out, two of the four prosecutors had worked for the special counsel, Robert Mueller, whose investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election dogged Trump for two years. The president attacked Mueller’s team anew Tuesday, saying if he were not president, he would sue it.
The president said he had not intervened in Stone’s case, evidently making a distinction between his public commentaries and explicit orders, but added that he had the power to do so if he wanted. “Just so you understand, I chose not to be involved,” he said. “I’m allowed to be totally involved. I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”
Republican congressional leaders defended Barr. “Suggestions from outside groups that the attorney general has fallen short of the responsibilities of his office are unfounded,” Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California said in a joint statement.
Trump’s attacks on Jackson generated alarms in the judiciary. The Federal Judges Association, a voluntary organization, scheduled an emergency telephone conference for this week. Judge Cynthia Rufe of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania told USA Today that the group wanted to discuss “plenty of issues that we are concerned about.”
Trump countered that the judges should instead investigate misconduct in the Mueller investigation. “I hope the Federal Judges Association will discuss the tremendous FISA Court abuse that has taken place with respect to the Mueller Investigation Scam, including the forging of documents and knowingly using the fake and totally discredited Dossier before the Court,” he wrote on Twitter.
The role of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani in another politically fraught matter before the Justice Department has also come under scrutiny.
Barr said last week that the department had an “intake process” for information from Ukraine, prompting complaints that law enforcement officials were giving Giuliani special treatment because he has said he turned over evidence against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, about their dealings in Ukraine.
Giuliani led the campaign to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Biden and other Democrats, a campaign that ultimately led the House to impeach Trump for abuse of power; he was acquitted this month in a Senate trial.
The department routes all Ukraine matters through a central process, not to circumvent channels but to avoid duplicating efforts, Stephen Boyd, an assistant attorney general, clarified on Tuesday. The U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Richard Donoghue, oversees the process, and his counterpart in Pittsburgh, Scott Brady, accepts any unsolicited information from the public, including from Giuliani, Boyd wrote in a letter to Congress.