WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump asserted Friday that he has the legal right to intervene in federal criminal cases, a day after Attorney General William Barr publicly rebuked him for attacks on Justice Department prosecutors and others involved in the case of Roger Stone, the president's longtime friend.
In a morning tweet, Trump quoted Barr saying that the president "has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case." The president said he had "so far chosen" not to interfere in a criminal case even though he insisted that he was not legally bound to do so.
"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!" he said.
Though he and Barr both said the president has not directly asked for any specific inquiries, Trump has long pressured law enforcement officials both publicly and privately to open investigations into political rivals and to drop inquiries. Trump also pressed former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to retake control of the Russia investigation after Sessions recused himself.
The assertion by the president, which implicitly rejected a request by Barr to stop tweeting about the department's cases, adds to the mounting controversy over the decision by senior Justice Department officials to overrule prosecutors who had recommended a seven- to nine-year sentence for Stone, who was convicted of seven felonies in a bid to obstruct a congressional investigation that threatened the president.
That recommendation infuriated Trump, who called the department's handling of the case "a disgrace" and later praised Barr after his top officials intervened to recommend a lighter sentence for Stone. The four prosecutors who were overruled resigned from the case in protest; one quit the department entirely.
Defense attorneys for Stone demanded a new trial Friday, one day after Trump suggested that the forewoman in the case had "significant bias." The legal motion could affect Stone's Feb. 20 sentencing date.
The basis for the request was filed under seal Friday, but its existence was disclosed in a court order by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who gave prosecutors until Feb. 18 to respond.
"Now it looks like the fore person in the jury, in the Roger Stone case, had significant bias," Trump wrote on Twitter on Thursday. "Add that to everything else, and this is not looking good for the 'Justice' Department."
Trump was referring to Tomeka Hart, a former president of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress. Hart has identified herself as the forewoman of the jury in a Facebook post, saying she "can't keep quiet any longer" in the wake of the Justice Department move to reduce its sentencing recommendation for Stone from the seven to nine years recommended by front-line prosecutors.
"It pains me to see the DOJ now interfere with the hard work of the prosecutors," Hart said in the post. "They acted with the utmost intelligence, integrity, and respect for our system of justice."
Seeking to calm the upheaval in his department, Barr on Thursday issued a pointed denunciation of Trump's tweets, which included criticism of Jackson and Hart. Barr said the commentary from the president made it "impossible for me to do my job" and insisted that "I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody."
"I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me," said Barr, who has been one of Trump's closest and most reliable allies since taking over at the Justice Department.
Past presidents have respected long-standing traditions that are aimed at preventing political influence from the White House on Justice Department investigations, especially criminal inquiries that involved administration officials or friends of the president. The rules have been in place since the Watergate investigation, in which President Richard Nixon sought to pressure the FBI.
Trump has repeatedly ignored those traditions, making contact with FBI officials and communicating with top Justice Department officials through Twitter and in person. His claim in Friday's tweet that he has "so far chosen" not to interfere in criminal cases is contradicted by a record of his actions during the his three years in office.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russian election interference inquiry, documented numerous instances in which the president sought to impede federal investigators as they examined the activities of Trump's White House advisers and former campaign aides in what could be construed as obstruction of justice. In his final report, Mueller said that Justice Department rules did not allow sitting presidents to be indicted.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.