Donald Trump has ignored a plea from his attorney general, William Barr, to not tweet about ongoing legal cases, by using his Twitter account to say he has a “legal right” to do so.
Barr delivered a remarkable public rebuke of the president just hours earlier, saying that Trump’s tweets “make it impossible for me to do my job” and that he would not be “bullied or influenced” over justice department decisions.
Barr’s comments came as he faced fierce criticism from Democrats over his intervention in the case of Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of Trump who was convicted in November. Barr this week overruled prosecutors who had recommended that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison.
The four prosecutors on the case resigned in protest after Barr’s intervention. The move prompted a crisis of credibility for the US justice system, as top lawyers warned it could undermine the integrity of federal prosecutors, politicize the legal handling of Trump’s friends and enemies, and ultimately threaten democracy itself.
But on Friday, Trump almost immediately showed Barr’s attempt to mute the president’s tweets had fallen on deaf ears.
In an early morning tweet, Trump referred to Barr’s assertion that Trump had never asked him to do anything related to a criminal case, including Stone’s. “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!” Trump said in the post.
Stone was convicted in November of tampering with a witness and obstructing the congressional investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
In an interview with ABC News, which aired on Thursday night, Barr said he wanted to lead the justice department without being influenced by outside forces, including the president.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr said.
In his interview, Barr emphasized Trump “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case”, but he acknowledged the president’s comments undercut his authority.
Barr warned Trump in a high-profile television interview that his social media interjections “make it impossible for me to do my job”.
The sense of crisis at the justice department continued to build through Friday, as multiple news outlets reported that Barr has appointed an outside prosecutor to look at the criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Last month, Flynn asked a judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea to charges he lied to the FBI during the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election collusion, accusing prosecutors of “bad faith, vindictiveness, and breach of the plea agreement”. Flynn’s petition was denied this week.
According to NBC News, justice department officials have already intervened to help change Flynn’s sentencing recommendations from a six-month sentence to probation.
The justice department also announced Friday that the former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe would not be charged over lying to investigators about a media disclosure.
McCabe, who had approved the investigation into alleged links between the 2015 Trump election campaign and Russia-linked operatives, leading to Mueller’s investigation and report, has long been accused of playing partisan politics by the president, who also repeatedly called for McCabe’s prosecution.
The president’s fresh assertion of his right to tweet on judicial issues is likely to further complicate the relationship between Barr and Trump which before the ABC interview had been seen as very close.
But some commentators remained skeptical about the motivations behind Barr’s interview, and whether he was trying to distance himself from t Trump or was working to protect the justice department from interference.
Former US attorney Preet Bharara tweeted: “I think Bill Barr is shrewd, deliberate, smart, calculating, careful, and full of it.”
Donald Ayer, the former deputy attorney general told MSNBC: “I don’t think he’s fit for the office because I think what he’s done is undertake a campaign to undermine the Department of Justice.”
Ayer, who preceded Barr as deputy attorney general under George HW Bush, added that Barr’s “pattern of conduct” since becoming attorney general involves “intervening out of usual course to protect Donald Trump”.
Matthew Miller, an Obama-era justice department official, wrote on Twitter: “Don’t be fooled by this one, people. Barr is telling the president that his impulsiveness is making it politically harder for him to deliver the results he wants. If Trump would just shut up, Barr could take care of him much more effectively.”
“The best indicator of future performance is past performance,” wrote the US congresswoman Val Demings, of Florida. “Attorney General Barr’s past performance was to mislead the American people (about the Mueller Report) in order to cover up wrongdoing by the president. Why shouldn’t we believe that’s exactly what he’s doing now?”
But the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking on Fox News, said Trump should heed Barr’s advice. “I think the president should listen,” McConnell, a powerful Republican, said. “If the attorney general says it’s getting in the way of doing his job, the president should listen to the attorney general.”
In his interview with ABC, Barr added that public statements and tweets about the department and its pending 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”.
He said: “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the president. I’m gonna 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.”
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, responded by saying the president “wasn’t bothered” by Barr’s comments: “[Barr] 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.”
The Department of Justice has insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation for Stone was made on Monday night, before Trump’s tweet calling the recommended sentence “very horrible and unfair”.
Barr is not the only high-profile figure to have criticized Trump this week. On Wednesday, the former White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke out against the treatment of the fired impeachment inquiry witness Lt Col Alexander Vindman.
Agencies contributed reporting