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What To Make Of A Wild Exchange Between President Trump And Attorney General Barr

Feb 14, 2020
Originally published on February 14, 2020 6:29 pm
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Does the president have the right to weigh in on a criminal case? President Trump says via Twitter that he does, but he adds, so far, he's chosen not to.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That's just the latest statement in a wild back-and-forth between the White House and the Justice Department about Attorney General Bill Barr and his decision to override the sentencing recommendation of the senior prosecutors in the Roger Stone case. You may remember Roger Stone is a longtime friend and confidant of President Trump's. He was convicted on charges that rose out of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Well, we're going to dig into this back-and-forth and what it means for the relationship between President Trump and his attorney general with our reporters working both ends of this story. NPR's Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department. He's here in the studio. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: And NPR's Franco Ordoñez, who covers the White House and is there as we speak. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: All right. So Ryan, let me start with you. I want to fact-check the president's statement in a sec, but I need you to set up for us how this week has unfolded.

LUCAS: So it's been a kind of cascade of events. But in shorthand, the attorney general took the highly unusual step of overruling career prosecutors in their recommendation for a sentence for Roger Stone. The attorney general did that shortly after the president tweeted about how unfair he thought that recommendation had been. The four prosecutors who were working that case withdrew from it; one of them went so far as to resign. This all blew up...

KELLY: Resigned from the Justice Department entirely.

LUCAS: Entirely.

KELLY: Yeah.

LUCAS: Right. And this has all blown up on the attorney general because it raised questions about the Justice Department's independence. Yesterday, Barr gave an interview to ABC News. He asserted his independence. He said that he won't be bullied by anyone. And he pushed back against the president's tweets directed at the Justice Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: 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.

KELLY: So a remarkable interview there with the attorney general, which brings us to this morning. And the president tweets, again...

LUCAS: Right.

KELLY: ...Referencing that exact quote from his attorney general about how he's never been asked to do anything in a criminal case. But then Trump writes, quote, "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." Ryan, is the president right? Can he weigh in on a criminal case if he wants to?

LUCAS: There is nothing in the law that prevents him from weighing in on a criminal case. The president has the authority to direct prosecutions, generally speaking. But there has been a norm in place for decades about the president weighing in publicly on investigations because it smacks of interference, political interference. And even if it's not actually interfering in the case, it could certainly appear to be interference, and appearances matter in the justice system.

One point, though, that Barr made clear in his interview with ABC which was that a directive to investigate a political opponent, if the president were to do that, that would be something black and white that an attorney general should not carry out.

KELLY: Franco, let me get the White House sense of all of this and, particularly, at the end of this week when there have been so many stories and developments that could be seen as the president being emboldened by surviving the impeachment trial and being acquitted. Is that your read? Is this the president unleashed?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, I'd certainly say that the president kind of kept his powder dry during the impeachment proceedings. It would have looked bad, according to the sources that I've spoken to, if he were to have fired Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and others who testified against him. But now that it's over, I'm not necessarily seeing a new degree of aggressiveness by the president. This is not like the shots that he took at his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who he called his biggest mistake, or calling for an investigation of former FBI Director James Comey.

This is who the president is. He is very aggressive, and he does not hold back. So I'm not sure it's that much different than before.

KELLY: And what was your read, Franco, of this latest tweet this morning saying, I have the right to wade into this if I want to, but I have so far chosen not to.

ORDOÑEZ: I certainly think it says that, you know, Bill Barr, you may ask me to do that, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to do it. And he's giving every indication that he is not going to temper his tweets. He said he would not. His press secretary yesterday said that the president sees the tweets as a way to fight for the American people.

KELLY: I want to bring one more voice into this. This is the voice of Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate majority leader, weighing in on the side of Bill Barr in all this. He was on Fox News last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I think if the attorney general says it's getting in the way of doing his job, maybe the president should listen to the attorney general.

KELLY: All indications, Franco, being the president is not inclined to listen to the attorney general here.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely not. I mean, the president is tweeting this morning that he is going to continue to speak out on issues that he feel are important and that if he feels that the Justice Department should do something, he's going to let them know, and he's going to speak out. I mean, these are things that he has said all along. We've heard before. When I talk to administration officials and former administration officials, they tell me the president that you see is the president who he is. He is someone who will talk publicly and privately in this same aggressive style.

KELLY: Another part of this interview with Bill Barr, Ryan, that you referenced was Barr saying, I'm not going to be bullied by anybody...

LUCAS: Right.

KELLY: ...Including the president. How far will Bill Barr take that, based on your reporting? Would he leave?

LUCAS: I don't think that we're to the point of talking about Bill Barr resigning. He has been in the job exactly one year as of today. This is actually his one-year anniversary.

KELLY: Wow.

LUCAS: But certainly, what I have been told by a person familiar with the matter is that everything that he said in this ABC interview he has told the president privately on more than one occasion in the past several weeks. This is a source of frustration for the attorney general, these tweets. And so the fact that he is speaking out about it, I think, is an indication that he's certainly concerned about it, but we are not to the point of him stepping away from the job.

KELLY: Let me put a question on the table for each of you to have a bite at, which is the why-does-this-matter question. I mean, who cares whether the president and his attorney general have a great relationship, a terrible relationship behind the scenes? The point is what this means for the Justice Department and the White House and the U.S. government functioning as it's supposed to be functioning. Franco, I know you have been talking to a former federal prosecutor who has some thoughts on that relationship.

ORDOÑEZ: I spoke with David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. He supported Barr's efforts but really questioned whether they would work and whether they would be able to contain concerns inside the department.

DAVID WEINSTEIN: This doesn't help because instead of listening to the advice that Barr gave to him, the president continues to push the boundaries of what he thinks he can do. And so much like a child who you admonish and scold and tell them to correct their behavior, he's not correcting his behavior.

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, basically, what Weinstein is saying is that Trump tweeting again this morning will only further inflame those concerns that are already permeating inside the building.

KELLY: So questions of morale. Ryan, let me let you weigh in here on where this leaves the relationship, why it matters.

LUCAS: Well, the big question for me hanging over all of this is one of political independence and the credibility of the Justice Department. The past week of events has certainly raised questions for a lot of people.

KELLY: And there's this latest twist today with the former deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who's not going to be prosecuted.

LUCAS: The Justice Department came out and said that they were not going to bring criminal charges against him. The case is considered closed. McCabe has certainly been a frequent target of the president, target of criticism. We will have to see how this plays out.

KELLY: NPR's Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department and Franco Ordoñez covers the White House. Gentlemen, thanks to you both.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.