WASHINGTON — Unbowed by a public rebuke from his attorney general, President Donald Trump on Friday declared he has the “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases and sidestep the Justice Department’s historic independence. At the same time, it was revealed federal prosecutors have been ordered to review the criminal case of his former national security adviser.
A day after Attorney General William Barr said the president’s tweets were making it “impossible for me to do my job,” Trump declared he had the right to ask the agency to intervene in cases but so far has “chosen not to.” It was a rare public flare-up of tensions, simmering for weeks at the upper echelon of the Trump administration, as Barr marked one year on the job Friday.
While Barr complained that Trump’s tweets undermine the department’s perception as independent from political interference, he has proven to be eager to deliver on many of the president’s investigative priorities — often laid out by Trump for all to see on Twitter.
The attorney general stepped in this week to alter the sentencing recommendation that Trump had denounced as too harsh for his ally Roger Stone. Also, Justice Department prosecutors are reviewing the handling of the federal investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday. And Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney who is conducting a criminal investigation into the origins of the FBI’s probe of the 2016 election that morphed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Trump-Russia cooperation.
Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its probe of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but his sentencing has been postponed several times after he complained he was misled during his questioning. The U.S. attorney in St. Louis, Jeff Jensen, is working with Brandon Van Grack, a member of Mueller’s team, to review the Flynn case, a Justice Department official said.
As president, Trump technically has the right to compel the Justice Department, an executive branch agency, to launch investigations. But historically, when it comes to decisions on criminal investigations and prosecutions, Justice has functioned independently, unmoved and unbound by political sway. And that reputation is important to Barr, as he made clear in an interview Thursday on ABC News.
“I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people ... 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 prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
The attorney general has repeatedly shared the same sentiment in private conversations with the president in recent weeks, telling Trump he was frustrated with the president’s public comments and tweets about Justice Department cases, a person familiar with the matter told the AP. The person was granted anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
Barr was directly asked in the ABC interview whether he believed Trump had the authority to direct him to open an investigation.
In many cases yes, such as “terrorism or fraud by a bank or something like that,” Barr said.
However, “If he were to say, you know, go investigate somebody because — 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.”