- The attorney general said Trump should stop tweeting about the Justice Department, after it put him in a bind for intervening in the case of longtime informal Trump adviser Roger Stone.
- Some, including congressional Democrats, suggested Barr and Trump coordinated a plan to defuse uproar over Barr's unorthodox intervention in Stone's case. But there's no evidence of this.
- "It appears more than likely that the Attorney General made his public comments of his own volition, but with the implicit understanding that the president would not be overly upset by it," a Washington-based national security lawyer told Insider.
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Attorney General William Barr offered rare criticism of President Donald Trump during an interview with ABC News that aired Thursday, prompting the president's critics to speculate about his motives.
Barr told ABC that Trump's tweeting habits "make it impossible for me to do my job."
"I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases," Barr said.
In response, some Democrats and media figures suggested without evidence that Barr had gotten Trump's approval to criticize him and to say the Justice Department's decisions are still independent after Barr's controversial intervention in the case of long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, a move that alarmed his own prosecutors.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, for example, tweeted, "Slow your roll if you think Barr is breaking from Trump. This was a carefully staged message to cool down pissed off DOJ attys 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."
Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Florida, who was a House impeachment manager in Trump's Senate trial, suggested Barr was "in cahoots" with Trump when it came to his criticism of the president's tweets.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
The president has a well-known reputation for responding with vitriol to virtually any public slights, but has so far refrained from doing so after Barr's comments, which may have been part of the reason so many raised questions about the situation.
"The President wasn't bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Thursday.
The president did, however, tweet about his self-perceived right to tell the attorney general what to do, even after Barr said Trump should stop tweeting about the Justice Department.
Since he joined the Trump administration, Barr has been repeatedly and widely accused of behaving more like the president's personal lawyer than the attorney general. The attorney general is the nation's chief law enforcement officer and charged with guarding the institution of the presidency but not the president himself.
Barr's history of inserting himself into situations involving the president in unorthodox ways has led many in Washington (and beyond) to accuse him of eroding his credibility by not behaving as an independent agent of the law.
With that said, there's no evidence that Barr's comments on Trump's tweets were part of a carefully crafted plan, but such theories still began floating around.
"It appears more than likely that the Attorney General made his public comments of his own volition, but with the implicit understanding that the president would not be overly upset by it," Bradley P. Moss, a Washington-based national security lawyer, told Insider.
"The verbiage used by the Attorney General was subtle enough that it's possible the president didn't take offense to it in the way we have come to expect. And in the end, that was likely the point: the Attorney General could be seen standing up for the Department, cooling off the internal revolt, without putting his job in jeopardy," Moss added.
Barr's intervention in Stone's case was highly unusual
Stone was convicted of seven counts in November , including obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and false statements. The charges related to his communications with WikiLeaks in 2016 and his efforts to prevent a witness in the Russia investigation from testifying to Congress or cooperating with the FBI. Stone was an informal adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign season and in close communication with the president during that time.
All four prosecutors overseeing the federal government's case against the veteran GOP strategist withdrew from the case earlier this week after top Justice Department officials, under Barr's direction, publicly overruled their sentencing recommendation for Stone.
Trump had complained about Stone's sentencing recommendation in a tweet, calling it "horrible and very unfair." After Barr interfered, he applauded the attorney general.
"Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought," the president said in a tweet.
Schiff: 'Barr fools no one'
Barr in the ABC interview also said it was "preposterous" to suggest he "intervened" in Stone's case, contending he simply helped resolve a dispute over a sentencing recommendation.
The attorney general said that he consulted with Justice Department officials about it privately on Monday, and that Trump's tweet complaining about the sentencing recommendation as too harsh put him in an awkward position.
And he rejected the notion Trump directed him to intervene in Stone's case, or any criminal matter, even as he criticized the president's social media habits.
"Well, I have a problem with some of, some of the tweets. 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 said, adding, "And I'm happy to say that, in fact the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case."
Given Barr's record of unconventional interference on the president's behalf, a number of people in the legal world and beyond have expressed skepticism over his remarks.
"The explanation by the Attorney General for why he felt it necessary to intervene in the Stone case is a bit hard to swallow," Moss told Insider. "Line prosecutors issue these sentencing recommendations all the time without it requiring sign off from the Attorney General itself."
"This is absolutely nonsense theatrics and I don't buy if for one moment. Barr interfered in the Stone case for purely political reasons and Barr's sole problem is the inconvenience of Trump saying it out loud," Susan Hennessey, a Senior Fellow in National Security in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, tweeted.
Similarly, Preet Bharara, former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a tweet said that Barr is "shrewd, deliberate, smart, calculating, careful, and full of it."
And Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who served as the lead House impeachment manager, tweeted : "Barr admits he intervened in the sentencing of a man who lied to Congress to cover up for the President. He's only upset that Trump's tweets made the political nature of his intervention obvious. Barr fools no one. He's a witting accomplice to Trump's attack on the rule of law."
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