WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Friday bucked his attorney general's public request to stop tweeting about criminal cases just as the department prepared to reveal it would not charge a former FBI official Trump considers a political foe - significantly escalating the tension between the commander in chief and his top law enforcement officer.
A day after Attorney General William Barr publicly warned Trump not to tweet about the Justice Department, Trump did just that, declaring that he has the "legal right" to ask his top law enforcement official to get involved in a criminal case.
Just hours later, the department made a move that might be seen as exerting its independence, revealing that it would not charge former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe with lying to investigators about a media disclosure. McCabe had authorized the bureau to investigate Trump in 2017 and has been a persistent target of presidential attacks.
The developments seem to suggest an uncertain future for Barr, who until now has been one of Trump's most loyal cabinet secretaries and has drawn criticism for protecting the president at the expense of the Justice Department's independence.
Democratic lawmakers and legal analysts, though, remained wary of what Barr was up to, and one development Friday indicated he was far from a complete break with the president.
According to people familiar with the matter, Barr has tasked outside prosecutors - in the deputy attorney general's office and from the U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis - to review the handling of the criminal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and other sensitive national security and public corruption prosecutions in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.
That has fueled concerns among career prosecutors and others that the department's political leadership is making a push to exert more control at a key point in sensitive, high-profile cases. Flynn was one of the early people to plead guilty in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller III's probe, admitting he lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, though he has since tried to withdraw his plea and allege misconduct on behalf of prosecutors.
The review was first reported by the New York Times.
The eventful day began - as many in Washington do now - with a Trump tweet. The president quoted Barr from a television interview Thursday in which he asserted that the president had never asked him to do anything related to a criminal case.
"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 added in his own voice.
“The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr 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!
“The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.” A.G. Barr 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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2020
Barr had said in the interview with ABC News, "I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases," 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."
The 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.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Trump's tweet. Staffers there had informed the White House after the ABC interview was taped, but before it aired, that Barr had talked to the television network, but did not provide specifics, a person familiar with the matter said. In recent weeks, the person said, Barr also relayed privately to Trump that his tweets were causing problems.
Hours later Friday, the Justice Department informed McCabe's team it was ending the long-running inquiry. As a top law enforcement official, he authorized the FBI to begin investigating Trump personally for possible obstruction of justice in connection with the probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
McCabe became the focus of a grand jury probe over allegations from the Justice Department inspector general that he lied to investigators exploring a media disclosure. The investigation was led by the District of Columbia U.S. attorney's office; a spokesman for that office declined to comment Friday.
The move to decline prosecution was said to infuriate Trump, who has raged publicly and privately in recent months that McCabe and others he considers political enemies should be charged with crimes.
A White House official said Trump was not given a head's up and was upset, and that White House lawyers moved to calm the president. The official said Trump "believes very strongly that action should be taken." Trump, who is set to depart for Mar-a-Lago later Friday, did not address either Barr's interview or the McCabe case in a speech to the National Border Patrol Council on Friday afternoon.
Michael Bromwich and David Schertler, McCabe's lawyers, said in a statement that the D.C. U.S. attorney's office had called and informed them that the case "has been closed," and hailed the move.
"At long last, justice has been done in this matter," the lawyers said in a statement.
In Barr's interview with ABC on Thursday, he said that Trump would be within his rights to ask for a criminal investigation in an area that didn't affect his personal interest - 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.
Trump has publicly and privately raged in recent months about wanting investigations of those he sees as enemies, including former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, former FBI director James B. Comey and McCabe.
"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.
A federal jury convicted Stone in November on charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress about his efforts to gather damaging information about Trump's 2016 presidential election opponent Hillary Clinton.
On Tuesday, Trump criticized as unduly harsh the initial sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years made by front-line prosecutors. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department signaled that it would seek a more lenient sentence for Stone, a move that prompted the four career prosecutors to withdraw from the case - and one to resign from the government.
Barr has said the decision was made before Trump's tweet on the matter. His assertions, though, have not fully allayed legal analysts and Democrats on Capitol Hill concerned that he is not adequately protecting the Justice Department's independence. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asserted on Twitter Friday that Barr had admitted intervening in a case "to cover up for the President."
"He's only upset that Trump's tweets made the political nature of his intervention obvious," Schiff wrote. "Barr fools no one. He's a witting accomplice to Trump's attack on the rule of law."
Stone is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday. The outside prosecutors Barr sent to the District U.S. Attorney's Office are reviewing his case in addition to Flynn's and others that have not yet been made public, a person familiar with the matter said. They began their work in recent weeks, coinciding with the transition of office leadership from former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu to interim U.S. Attorney Timothy Shea, a former Barr counselor.
One Justice Department official said a prosecutor with the St. Louis U.S. Attorney's Office is working with Flynn prosecutor Brandon Van Grack, characterizing his work as "assisting" Van Grack in a review of the case.
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The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.
This article was written by Matt Zapotosky, John Wagner, Devlin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu, reporters for The Washington Post.