Legal analysts skeptical of Barr’s “carefully staged” rebuke of Trump: "Don't buy it for one moment"

Even Fox News host Laura Ingraham said Barr is “basically telling Trump, ‘Don’t worry, I got this’”

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 14, 2020 11:57AM (EST)

U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Win McNamee)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Win McNamee)

William Barr's surprise interview rebuking President Donald Trump over his tweets drew skepticism at the end of a week in which the attorney general got involved in the case of the president's oldest political adviser.

Barr sat down Thursday for an interview with ABC News after he intervened in the case of longtime Trump associate Roger Stone to reduce the seven- to nine-year sentencing recommendation filed by prosecutors, a move which prompted all four prosecutors in the case to withdraw. Barr similarly intervened in the case of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to NBC News, and replaced the top Justice Department official at the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. who oversaw Stone's case.

Barr defended the department's moves by arguing that his new hand-picked U.S. attorney in D.C. felt the sentencing recommendation was "very, very high." Barr said the new sentencing recommendation, which does not actually recommend a specific sentence, "deferred" to the judge's discretion.

Barr claimed that he was "surprised" that prosecutors recommended seven to nine years for Stone and "had to do something . . . to amend that and clarify what our position was."

Barr said he learned of Trump's tweets complaining about the sentencing recommendation after the department had already moved to intervene in the sentencing recommendation.

"That sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be for the Department of Justice, because at that point, I had made a decision that I thought was fair and reasonable in this particular case. And once the tweet occurred, the question is: 'Well, now what do I do?' And do you go forward with what you think is the right decision?," Barr asked. "Or do you pull back because of the tweet?' And that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be."

"So you're saying you have a problem with the tweets?" ABC News' Pierre Thomas asked.

"Yes. Well, I have a problem with some of — some of the tweets," Barr replied. "As I said at my confirmation hearing, I think the essential role of the attorney general is to keep law enforcement — the criminal process — sacrosanct to make sure there is no political interference in it. And I have done that, and I will continue to do that."

Barr insisted that "the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case."

"However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department — about our people in the department, our men and women here — 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," he added.

"The president does not like to be told what to do. He may not like what you're saying. Are you prepared for those ramifications?" Thomas asked.

"Of course," Barr replied. "I will make those decisions based on what I think is the right thing to do, and I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody. And I said, whether it's Congress, newspaper editorial boards or the president, I'm going to do what I think is right."

"I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me," the attorney general continued.

Pressed for examples of the president making his job difficult, Barr pointed to Trump's tweets saying "someone should be investigated" or "someone should go to jail."

"Because people might think that if you proceed with the investigation, it was prompted by the tweet," he said. "It's the same kind of thing that happened here. So — and there are other examples where if you have a case before a judge. To be attacking the judge, you know, it is not helpful or productive at all."

Barr added that attacking the staff at the Justice Department and FBI "in general terms is unfair."

"I don't pay attention to tweets," he said. "If the president has something to say, I expect that he will talk to me directly and call me."

Shortly after the interview aired, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed with Barr's suggestion that the president cease tweeting about investigations.

"My reaction to that is: The president made a great choice when he picked Bill Barr to be attorney general," McConnell said on Fox News. "I think the president should listen to his advice."

"So you have a problem with the president's tweeting, as well?" host Bret Baier asked.

"I think that if the attorney general said that it's getting in the way of doing his job, maybe the president should listen to the attorney general," McConnell replied.

However, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, a close ally of Trump, said he was "so disappointed in Bill Barr."

"To hear this attorney general complain about this president, who's fighting every one of those damn people to do the right thing and to get this country straightened out — and it's his mission to do so — not to carp about his boss," Dobbs said. "And by the way, I don't want to hear any crap about an independent Justice Department. This Justice Department, as does every one, works for the president. It is part of the executive branch."

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told Fox News that Trump "wasn't bothered by the comments at all," prompting cynicism about Barr's sudden rebuke given his record in the Trump administration. As Barr was giving his interview, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department was investigating the CIA and appeared "to be hunting for a basis to accuse Obama-era intelligence officials of hiding evidence or manipulating analysis" about Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

"When the AG steps in to fix a sentence in just 1 case of the 1000s DOJ has in progress & it just happens to be for a buddy of Trump's, that's corruption," MSNBC's Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney, tweeted.

"Slow your roll if you think Barr is breaking from Trump," former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele added. "This was a carefully staged message to cool down pissed off DOJ [attorneys] whom Barr undercut & to avoid any further internal strife. This message does not get sideways with Trump because he's already done what Trump wanted."

"This is absolutely nonsense theatrics and I don't buy [it] for one moment," CNN legal analyst Susan Hennessey wrote. "Barr has been relying on completely implausible deniability about what he is doing and why at the Justice Department to keep his ranks in line. President Trump once again said the quiet part out loud about what they were up too and now Barr's got a revolt on his hands.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who served as an impeachment manager during Trump's Senate trial, told CNN that she "would not be surprised" if Barr and Trump were "in cahoots in terms of Barr making a public statement to the American people."

CNN's Don Lemon said Barr's statement "sounds tough, sounds independent, sounds too good to be true — because it is too good to be true."

"Nobody is buying this," he added.

Even Fox News host Laura Ingraham said Barr appeared to be "basically telling Trump, 'Don't worry, I got this.'"

"Barr dishonestly trashed the Mueller report. Barr has set up a mechanism to launder Rudy's tinfoil claims from Ukraine. Barr has directed Trump's obstruction of Congress and overruled career prosecutors on Stone. We're to believe now he's independent and standing strong," former Bill Clinton aide Joe Lockhart wrote on Twitter. "Please."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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