Attorney General Bill Barr asked President Donald Trump to knock off his extremely public interference in the sentencing of his longtime buddy Roger Stone last Thursday — even though he took Trump’s hint and intervened to lower Stone’s sentencing recommendation. But in the eight days since Barr made his request, Trump has made a mockery of him.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC, in comments some took to be a rare rebuke of Trump from one of his top officials. “To have public statements and tweets about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make[s] it impossible for me to do my job and assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
Barr was purportedly so mad that unnamed administration officials leaked word to reporters earlier this week that he was considering resigning unless Trump stopped commenting on cases in a manner aimed at tipping the scales for his associates.
But if anything, Trump has escalated his efforts to intervene in the workings of justice since Barr went on record asking him to stop. The president’s gripes have fallen into two buckets: complaining that Stone and other associates of his who have been convicted of crimes (such as Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn) have been treated unfairly, and calling for his perceived enemies to be dealt with more harshly.
What Trump has done since Barr asked him to knock it off
The next day, Trump accused Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and former Secretary of State John Kerry of breaking the law and suggested they should be prosecuted. He echoed that same theme on Thursday in a tweet in which he alluded to his unhappiness that Hillary Clinton and former FBI official Andrew McCabe didn’t get the Stone treatment. (Never mind that both were already investigated and found to have done nothing wrong.)
“They say Roger Stone lied to Congress.” @CNN OH, I see, but so did Comey (and he also leaked classified information, for which almost everyone, other than Crooked Hillary Clinton, goes to jail for a long time), and so did Andy McCabe, who also lied to the FBI! FAIRNESS?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2020
Later Thursday, Trump posted a tweet describing the decision DOJ made to not prosecute McCabe as “utterly inexplicable.” After that, he held an event in Las Vegas in which he attacked the foreperson of Stone’s jury at length because she had social media posts that criticized him.
Trump on Roger Stone: "The forewoman of the jury, the woman who was in charge, is totally tainted when you take a look. How can you have a person like this? She was an anti-Trump activist"— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 20, 2020
Goes on to claim she's a "dominant person, so she can get people to do whatever she wants" pic.twitter.com/TqZY0wHIi0
Then, early Friday — following a rally in Colorado Springs in which he suggested Clinton would’ve been executed were she Republican — Trump ended his night by tweeting another complaint about Stone getting what he views to be a raw deal.
In short, instead of following Barr’s advice, Trump did pretty much the opposite — weighing in on cases of personal interest again and again and again. Yet there hasn’t been a peep from the DOJ about Barr following through on his threat to resign.
Like professional wrestling promos, Barr’s comments were kayfabe
In theory, the attorney general is supposed to run the Justice Department independently of the executive branch, free of political interference from the president. But in practice, Barr’s role has been closer to Trump’s personal fixer than it has been a neutral arbiter of the law. So his comments to ABC and the subsequent leaks about his dissatisfaction with Trump’s tweets were meant to keep up appearances — especially amid a groundswell of former DOJ officials calling for him to resign.
The notion that Barr suddenly developed a concern for DOJ independence was a tough one to swallow for anyone who has been playing close attention to what’s been happening. That’s because, as my colleague Jen Kirby detailed last week, Barr has been Trump’s dream attorney general:
Critics have long accused Barr of acting as Trump’s personal attorney, beginning with his handling of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr released selective details about Mueller’s report, which Trump used to declare “total exoneration,” despite Mueller himself disputing Barr’s characterization and urging him to release more detailed summaries. Barr refused; nearly a month later, he released a redacted version of Mueller’s full report, but not before giving a news conference that defended the president as “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.”
Barr also disputed some of the findings in the Justice Department inspector general’s report that found political bias did not motivate the opening of the Russia investigation. “The FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a US presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said after the release of the report.
The attorney general also ordered a separate investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, led by Connecticut US Attorney John Durham. That investigation is reportedly looking into whether Obama administration intelligence officials potentially manipulated evidence to conclude that the Kremlin interfered to benefit Trump, and not merely to sow discord.
Recall that the whole point of Trump firing his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was because he was angry that Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe and was therefore unable to “protect” him. Barr, as Sessions’s replacement, not only shepherded the Mueller investigation to a swift and favorable conclusion but has helped Trump go on the offensive by launching investigations of dubious necessity that could implicate Trump’s perceived enemies in law enforcement and the intelligence communities.
Barr has been very useful for Trump. But part of his usefulness hinges on maintaining the appearance that he’s not merely doing Trump’s bidding. Unless he follows through on his threat to resign, it’s hard not to conclude his comments to ABC were nothing more than an elaborate bit of public relations — especially considering Trump’s behavior since then.