WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump brushed aside criticism from his own attorney general Friday, claiming in a tweet that he has a “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases such as the one involving his former adviser, Roger Stone.
The tweet was a reaction to Attorney General William Barr’s assertion a day earlier that the president’s penchant for weighing publicly into prosecutions handled by the Justice Department is making it “impossible for me to do my job.”
Trump focused on one part of Barr’s interview with ABC that aired Thursday, noting that the attorney general said the president had “never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” But Trump did not react to Barr’s rare public rebuke, in which he acknowledged that he is concerned about “some of the tweets” the president fires off.
Trump’s predictable response: A tweet.
“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 asserted on his favored social media platform.
Earlier, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham downplayed Barr’s comments, saying in a statement that Trump “wasn’t bothered” by what the attorney general said.
“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,” the statement 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 exchange is playing out as the Justice Department faces criticism for backing away from its initial recommendation of a stiff prison sentence for Stone. The 67-year-old presidential confidant was found guilty in November of lying to Congress and obstructing the Russia investigation. Trump blasted prosecutors’ initial recommendation that Stone serve seven to nine years.
After the Justice Department signaled it would abandon that sentencing recommendation, four prosecutors withdrew from the case – including one who resigned.
Trump’s assertion that he has a “legal right” to intervene in the cases is likely to prompt a debate in legal circles. Barr appeared to preemptively disagree with the claim during his interview, asserting the Justice Department has authority over such cases.
“Starting a legitimate investigation … that’s the work of the attorney general and the Department of Justice,” Barr said Thursday. “That’s not like, you know, like running commentary from someone on the outside about what we’re doing.”
Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly noted that the attorney general serves at his pleasure. He fired Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, after a public dispute over Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Trump has also demonstrated a willingness to inject himself in investigations , including those that have centered on his own actions.
In last year’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, then-special counsel Robert Mueller cited multiple instances in which Trump sought to thwart or close down the inquiry. Ultimately, the special counsel made no decision on whether Trump’s conduct amounted to obstruction of justice, later saying that Justice Department policy prohibited the prosecution of a sitting president.
Barr drew a more definitive conclusion, saying there was insufficient evidence in the special counsel’s report to bring obstruction charges against Trump.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who served as chief of that office’s Public Integrity Section, said the president does have broad authority to dictate action across the government. But he said that authority should not apply when a criminal inquiry has a “direct or indirect connection to him.”
“That is where it becomes fuzzy, since the president doesn’t seem to be able to perceive what activity constitutes something that has a direct or indirect connection to him or his business interests,” Weinstein said. “As an ethics and professional responsibility professor once told me, if you have to think about whether or not what you are about to do crosses the line, it probably does and you shouldn’t do it.”
University of Notre Dame law professor Jimmy Gurulé, a former Justice official in the George H. W. Bush administration, said Trump’s words and actions represent a “flagrant abuse of executive power.”
“Apparently, Trump believes he has the authority to decide who to prosecute and not prosecute, and, if the accused is convicted of a crime, to dictate the appropriate sentence to be imposed,” Gurulé said. “That’s not a democracy based on the rule of law.”