WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr pushed back hard Thursday against President Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department, saying, ‘‘I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody,’’ an assertion of independence that could jeopardize his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
The remarkable public rebuke of the president by a sitting member of his Cabinet arose from a crisis of confidence at the Justice Department, which had been accused this week of buckling to an angry tweet the president issued after learning of prosecutors’ initial prison recommendation for his longtime friend Roger Stone.
‘‘I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,’’ Barr said in an interview with ABC News, adding that such statements ‘‘about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending here, 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 and the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.’’
People close to Barr said that in recent months he has become increasingly frustrated with Trump’s tweets about the Justice Department. The president, they said, seemed not only to be undercutting his own political momentum but also to be causing doubts about the department’s independence. Trump’s tweet complaining that he believed his friend was being treated unfairly proved something of a last straw, they said, because it was so damaging to morale at the department.
Barr was comfortable not being universally loved by career employees, but he felt the tweet Tuesday raised a bigger problem, giving people reason to wonder whether the department had been corrupted by political influence and decided he could no longer remain silent about the president’s public denunciations, these people said.
Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private discussions within the administration.
Behind that public fight, according to people familiar with the discussions, is a deeper tension between Trump and Barr’s Justice Department over the lack of criminal charges against former FBI director James Comey and those close to him.
The tension has worsened in the past month, these people said, and came to a head Monday when prosecutors on the Stone case filed a recommendation to the court that Stone receive a seven-to-nine-year prison sentence for his conviction on charges of obstruction of Congress and witness tampering.
On Tuesday, after Trump denounced the move, the Justice Department filed a softer sentencing recommendation, and the four prosecutors who signed the initial court filing quit the Stone case. One left the government entirely.
Barr insisted Thursday that he already planned to modify the sentencing recommendation even before Trump’s tweet, but that the president’s comments made the department look bad.
Since becoming attorney general last year, Barr has enthusiastically defended the president, much to the frustration of congressional Democrats and some current and former Justice Department officials upset over what they consider an erosion of the agency’s independence. Thursday’s interview marked a stunning break from that practice.
The attorney general said he was prepared to accept the consequences of his comments.
‘‘I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,’’ he said. He also noted that when he became attorney general last year, he pledged to resist improper influence from any quarter, whether Congress, the White House, or elsewhere.
The president has harshly criticized multiple current and former Justice Department officials — and a federal judge — over prosecutions and investigations involving Trump’s former associates and alleged leaking by government officials. But Barr insisted Thursday that Trump ‘‘has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.’’ Trump, he said, ‘‘never’’ talked with him about the Stone sentencing recommendation, and he had ‘‘not discussed the Roger Stone case at the White House.’’
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement late Thursday that the president had not lost confidence in his attorney general.
‘‘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,’’ Grisham said. ‘‘President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country, including the fake news. The President has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law.’’
The flare-up over the Stone case comes against a backdrop of growing behind-the-scenes anger from the president toward the Justice Department — more about who they haven’t charged with crimes than who they have, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump has tweeted many times that he thinks Comey should be charged with crimes, and he was particularly upset that no charges were filed over the former FBI director’s handling of memos about his interactions with Trump.
An inspector general report faulted the former director for keeping some of those memos at his home, and for arranging for the contents of one of the memos to be shared with a reporter after Comey was fired in 2017.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred Comey’s handling of the memos to prosecutors for possible criminal prosecution, but lawyers quickly determined it was not a close call and did not seek to build a case against the former FBI director.
That sent Trump into a rage, according to people briefed on his comments.
In Thursday’s ABC News interview, Barr said that he was surprised by prosecutors’ first filing in the Stone case, and that the president’s tweet had nothing to do with his decision to soften the Stone sentencing recommendation less than 24 hours after it was filed.
The attorney general said that Tim Shea, the US attorney in the District, had spoken with him briefly Monday, before the Stone filing, and told him the prosecutors ‘‘very much wanted to recommend the seven to nine years to the judge.’’
But Barr claimed that Shea told him ‘‘he thought that there was a way of satisfying everybody and providing more flexibility.’’
‘‘I was under the impression that what was going to happen was very much as I had suggested, which is deferring to the judge, and then pointing out various factors and circumstances,’’ Barr said.
Barr said when he first saw news reports Monday night of the recommendation that was filed, he thought, ‘‘Gee, the news is spinning this; this is not what we were going to do.’’
‘‘I was very surprised,’’ Barr said. ‘‘And once I confirmed that that’s actually what we filed, I said that night, to my staff, that we had to get ready because we had to do something in the morning to amend that and clarify what our position was.’’
Next came the president’s tweet complaining that Stone was being treated unfairly, which Barr said put him in an untenable position.
‘‘Once the tweet occurred, the question is, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ ” Barr said. ‘‘And do you go forward with what you think is the right decision, or do you pull back because of the tweet? And that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be.’’
Barr said Trump would be within his rights to ask for an investigation in an area that didn’t affect his personal interests — such as in a terrorism case, or fraud by a bank. But he said an attorney general would not listen to an order to investigate a political opponent.
‘‘If he were to say go investigate somebody, 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,’’ Barr said.