Barr says Trump tweets make his job ‘im­pos­si­ble’

Stone case is part of deeper ten­sions with White House

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DEVLIN BAR­RETT, MATT ZAPO­TO­SKY AND JOSH DAWSEY

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr pushed back hard Thurs­day against Pres­i­dent Trump’s at­tacks on the Jus­tice De­part­ment, say­ing, “I’m not going to be bul­lied or in­flu­enced by any­body,” an as­ser­tion of independen­ce that could jeop­ar­dize his ten­ure as the na­tion’s top law en­force­ment of­fi­cial.

The re­mark­able pub­lic re­buke of the pres­i­dent by a sit­ting mem­ber of his Cab­i­net arose from a cri­sis of con­fi­dence at the Jus­tice De­part­ment, which had been ac­cused this week of buck­ling to an an­gry tweet the pres­i­dent is­sued af­ter learn­ing of prose­cu­tors’ ini­tial prison rec­om­men­da­tion for his long­time friend, Roger Stone.

“I think it’s 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 we’re do­ing our work with in­tegrity.”

People close to Barr said that in re­cent months he has be­come in­creas­ingly frus­trated with Trump’s tweets about the Jus­tice

“I think it’s time to stop the tweet­ing about De­part­ment of Jus­tice crim­i­nal cases.”

— At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr, in an in­ter­view with ABC News on Thurs­day

De­part­ment. The pres­i­dent, they said, seemed not only to be un­der­cut­ting his own po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum but also to be fos­ter­ing doubts about the de­part­ment’s independen­ce. Trump’s 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 loved by ca­reer em­ploy­ees, but he felt the tweet Tues­day raised a big­ger prob­lem, giv­ing people rea­son to won­der whether the de­part­ment had been cor­rupted by po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and de­cided he could no longer re­main silent about the pres­i­dent’s pub­lic de­nun­ci­a­tions, these people said.

Like oth­ers, they spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­tail pri­vate dis­cus­sions within the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Be­hind that pub­lic fight, ac­cord­ing to people fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions, is a deeper ten­sion be­tween Trump and Barr’s Jus­tice De­part­ment over the lack of crim­i­nal charges against for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James B. Comey and those close to him.

The ten­sion 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 sev­ento nine-year prison sen­tence for his con­vic­tion on charges of ob­struc­tion of 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 left the gov­ern­ment en­tirely.

Barr in­sisted Thurs­day that he had planned to mod­ify the sentencing rec­om­men­da­tion be­fore Trump is­sued his tweet but that the pres­i­dent’s 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 agency’s independen­ce. Thurs­day’s 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, he pledged to re­sist im­proper in­flu­ence from any quar­ter, whether Congress, the White House or else­where.

The pres­i­dent has harshly crit­i­cized mul­ti­ple cur­rent and for­mer Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials — and a fed­eral judge — over prose­cu­tions and in­ves­ti­ga­tions in­volv­ing Trump’s 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 press sec­re­tary Stephanie Gr­isham said in a state­ment late Thurs­day that the pres­i­dent had not lost con­fi­dence in the at­tor­ney gen­eral.

“The Pres­i­dent wasn’t 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 from the pres­i­dent to­ward the Jus­tice De­part­ment — more about whom the de­part­ment has not charged with crimes than about whom it has charged, ac­cord­ing to people fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions.

Trump has re­peat­edly com­plained about FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pher A. Wray in re­cent months, say­ing that Wray has not done enough to change the FBI’S cul­ture, purge the bureau of people who are dis­loyal to him or change poli­cies af­ter vi­o­la­tions of the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act.

He has also 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 di­rec­tor’s 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 Comey’s 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.

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 didn’t charge him?” Trump said on the night of the de­ci­sion, these people said. Trump has also wanted charges filed against Comey’s for­mer deputy, Andrew Mccabe. A sep­a­rate in­spec­tor gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded that 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 seemed poised to make a de­ci­sion on the case last year be­fore fiz­zling into in­ac­tion.

Trump’s anger over the lack of charges against FBI per­son­nel flared again in 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 U.S. At­tor­ney John Hu­ber in Utah — tapped years ear­lier to rein­ves­ti­gate sev­eral is­sues re­lated to vague al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion against Hil­lary Clin­ton — had qui­etly wound down his work af­ter find­ing 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 pres­i­dent’s mind, it is un­ac­cept­able that people such as Comey and Mccabe have not been charged, par­tic­u­larly if people such as Stone and Flynn are going to be treated harshly, these people said.

In re­cent weeks, these people said, the pres­i­dent’s anger has fo­cused in­creas­ingly on Jessie Liu, the for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney for the District of Columbia, 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 Comey’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing in 2016. Many of in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ ques­tions have seemed fo­cused on the for­mer FBI di­rec­tor.

Separately, Barr tapped U.S. At­tor­ney John Durham in Con­necti­cut 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 Trump’s 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 Thurs­day’s ABC News in­ter­view, Barr said that he was sur­prised by prose­cu­tors’ first fil­ing in the Stone case and that the pres­i­dent’s 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, Liu’s suc­ces­sor as U.S. at­tor­ney for the District, had spo­ken with him briefly 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 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 that’s 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 pres­i­dent’s 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 didn’t 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 it’s be­cause they’re a po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent, then an at­tor­ney gen­eral shouldn’t carry that out, wouldn’t carry that out,” Barr said.

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. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in the District last month.

Prose­cu­tors and de­fense lawyers can only make rec­om­men­da­tions about prison sen­tences. Stone’s sentencing is sched­uled for Feb. 20 be­fore U.S. District 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.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump with At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr at the White House in July. Barr, widely re­garded as guard­ing the pres­i­dent’s in­ter­ests from atop the Jus­tice De­part­ment, on Thurs­day pub­licly ex­pressed ir­ri­ta­tion with Trump’s dis­par­age­ment of Jus­tice De­part­ment prose­cu­tions. The con­tro­versy arises from the im­mi­nent sentencing of Trump’s friend Roger Stone in fed­eral court in Wash­ing­ton.

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