Even as President Donald Trump renewed his public attacks on the Justice Department on Wednesday, there was little outward worry from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue that Attorney General William Barr would follow through on his private threat to resign over presidential meddling.
Barr’s suggestion that he may quit over the president’s tweets left many close to Trump questioning whether the attorney general really was considering stepping aside, instead believing he was trying to quell an internal uproar at the Department of Justice and bolster his own reputation and his ability to act on Trump’s behalf.
Barr told people close to him he has considered leaving his post after Trump wouldn’t heed his request to stop tweeting about the agency’s cases. The attorney general last week had taken a public swipe at the president, saying in a television interview that Trump’s tweets about Justice Department cases and staffers make it “impossible” for him to do his job.
But Trump has repeatedly ignored that advice, insisting that he has the “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases. In a series of retweets Wednesday, he appeared to embrace the suggestion that Barr “clean shop” at the department and appoint a special counsel to probe both the agency and the FBI.
Barr had lunch on Tuesday with White House counsel Pat Cipollone, though officials said it was pre-scheduled and unrelated to the firestorm at the agency.
Multiple White House officials insisted Wednesday that the spat with Barr was being overblown and that the attorney general would not be going anywhere. But they also acknowledged there was zero chance Trump would refrain from tweeting about the department as requested by Barr.
Republicans on Capital Hill also played down the odds of a Barr departure. But in the last few days, some of the president’s closest GOP allies have been letting Trump know they think Barr is the right person to lead his Justice Department.
Trump, usually unwilling to let a public slight from an aide go unpunished, has not expressed much anger at Barr’s candour, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing.
Barr’s spokeswoman said Tuesday night that the attorney general had “no plans to resign.” Still, former officials called on Barr to step down from his post after what they see as an erosion of the Justice Department’s historical independence.
“The Justice Department has never been perfect, but it has worked very hard to be above suspicion for outright dishonesty and bias and the invasion of politics into it,” said Donald Ayer, who was a deputy attorney general under Republican President George H.W. Bush and succeeded by Barr. “What’s going on now is that’s being torn down.
“I don’t remember anything like this that has ever happened,” Ayer said.
Barr has been one of the president’s closest allies in the administration and a staunch defender of Trump’s policy decisions. The president dismissed his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after the former senator recused himself from the Russia probe.
Barr, meanwhile, endeared himself to the Oval Office by preemptively framing the results of that investigation in a positive light for Trump and casting doubt on the origins of the probe.
Barr, serving in his second stint as attorney general, has sought to paint himself as an independent leader who would not bow to political pressure. But Democrats have repeatedly accused him of acting more like the president’s personal attorney than the attorney general.
Barr’s frustration with Trump, which he has communicated to senior White House aides, has grown in recent weeks. He told those close to him he felt compelled to speak publicly after Trump criticized the sentencing of longtime political ally Roger Stone.
Barr spoke out to ABC News just days after his Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors — who had recommended that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison — and took the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek. All four prosecutors from Stone’s trial quit the case and one left the government altogether.
After the Stone reversal, many at the Department of Justice and in the tight-knit Washington legal community expressed dismay at what they saw as presidential interference. More than 1,100 former Justice Department prosecutors called on Barr to resign in a letter released Sunday, insisting that Barr’s decision to intervene in Stone’s case tarnished the department’s reputation.
Some Democrats called for Barr to resign, and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to open an investigation into Barr’s role in the sentencing reversal.
Trump has told those around him that he understands why Barr would voice his opinion but made clear he would not change his methods. Emboldened by his impeachment acquittal, Trump appears eager to seek vengeance on those at the Justice Department he believes stirred up the Russia investigation.
While Trump has yet to retaliate against Barr, he has been known to lash out at aides who have previously broken with him, including Sessions and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The public kerfuffle was enough to prompt a stream of Trump allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham, to issue a statement expressing their full confidence in the attorney general.
Congressional Republicans wanted to show a united front in support of the attorney general. Graham spoke to Barr on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Barr is well-liked on Capitol Hill and Republicans want to ensure he stays in his job despite criticism from Democrats and needling from the president, according to people familiar with GOP lawmakers’ thinking. They are more concerned that Barr would resign than be fired and also fear a bruising fight to confirm any possible replacement.
“The president made a great choice when he picked Bill Barr to be the attorney general,” McConnell said last week on Fox News. “I think the president should listen to his advice.”
The White House made clear that Trump remained unrepentant.
“He absolutely respects the attorney general. And he appreciates his service. And they have a good relationship,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters Wednesday.
“As the president said, he also understands that sometimes what he says could impact the attorney general’s ability to do his job, but the president still has a right to defend himself and he uses social media, as you guys well know, to get out his message directly to the American people.”
Jonathan Lemire reported from New York. AP writers Jill Colvin in Washington and Zeke Miller in Las Vegas contributed to this report.