WASHINGTON–Attorney General William Barr, in an unusual break with President Donald Trump, said Thursday that the president’s habit of injecting himself into criminal cases has made it “impossible for me to do my job.”
In his first public comments since the Justice Department earlier this week backed away from a stiff prison sentence for longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, the attorney general asserted in an interview with ABC News that the president “has never asked me to to anything in a criminal case,” including Roger Stone’s.
Stone, 67, was found guilty in November of lying to Congress and obstructing the Russia investigation to protect Trump and his presidential campaign.
Stone is due to be sentenced next week. Monday afternoon, prosecutors asked a judge to put him in prison for seven to nine years, arguing that his “lies to Congress and his obstructive conduct are a direct and brazen attack on the rule of law.”
Hours later, in the middle of the night, Trump slammed their recommendation as a “miscarriage of justice.”
Tuesday morning, the Justice Department indicated it would amend the recommendation, prompting the entire prosecution team to quit the case. One resigned from the government entirely.
The fast-moving developments have cast a harsh spotlight on the Justice Department’s leadership, primarily Barr, and have raised fresh questions about the department’s independence from the White House.
“I am not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board or the president,” Barr said in the interview. “I’m gonna do what I think is right. I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about the Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said.
Roger Stone sentence:How prosecutors came up with a stiff sentence for Roger Stone
Barr: Prosecutors’ recommended prison sentence was excessive
The attorney general defended the decision to dial back the sentencing recommendation, adding that it had nothing to do with the criticism streaming from Trump’s Twitter account.
Though Barr maintained he did not disagree with Stone’s convictions, he said the initial sentencing recommendation was excessive. He said he directed his staff to amend the recommendation before Trump called it “horrible and very unfair.”
Barr went on to say he had not talked with the prosecutors who withdrew from the case, and he was “a little surprised” by their actions.
As much as Barr appeared to push back against his boss in the interview, the attorney general also seemed to be speaking to the department’s attorneys. They have found themselves in Trump’s crosshairs in politically sensitive cases, from the prosecutions of former national security adviser Michael Flynn to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
One indication of how much the reversal in Stone’s case had roiled rank and file prosecutors came Thursday afternoon in a statement from the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys.
The group, regarded as the “bar association” for the country’s federal prosecutor cadre, said the government lawyers in the Stone case “properly exercised their discretion to recommend a guidelines sentence.”
“Recommendations on sentencing should be developed by the career prosecutors assigned to a particular case and their supervisors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” the group said. “These recommendations are, and should be, made impartially and without the political influence of elected officials.”
Barr said his involvement in the Stone case was limited to settling an internal disagreement over sentencing. Any suggestion that he intervened on behalf of the president, he said, is “preposterous.”
Prosecutors considered Stone’s crimes, behavior in arguing for prison time
Stone’s convictions stem from his actions in 2016, when he tried to set up back-channel communications with WikiLeaks to push for the release of emails stolen from the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Stone repeatedly lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his efforts, denying that he had talked to the Trump campaign about them.
Federal prosecutors come up with sentence recommendations using a combination of mathematical calculations and aggravating factors, called “enhancements,” that are detailed in a 600-page manual. The more enhancements, the longer the sentence.
In Stone’s case, prosecutors considered several aggravating factors: threatening to harm someone, interfering with the administration of justice, engaging in a crime that spans years, and obstructing the prosecution.
Defense attorneys argued that adding the aggravating factors wasn’t justified. They cited a letter from the witness, Randy Credico, saying he never felt threatened by Stone.
Stone’s attorneys argued that the guideline for first-time offenders convicted of these crimes is 15 to 21 months. They asked that Stone be sentenced to probation.
Democrats urge investigations into handling of Stone case
The decision to amend that recommendation, however, prompted Democrats to call for investigations. Barr has been summoned to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on March 31.
Earlier Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, urged the committee to take up a separate investigation of the Stone matter.
“I believe it’s serious,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a fierce ally of Trump and Barr. “If it’s without precedent and that’s proven, we really need to take a good look at it.”
Graham issued an unmitigated vote of confidence in the attorney general.
“President Trump, in selecting Bill Barr to be Attorney General, has done a great service to the people serving in the Department of Justice and our nation as a whole,” Graham said. “He is the right man at the right time to reform the Department and stand up for the rule of law. Attorney General Barr has my complete confidence.”