WASHINGTON - There were two views Thursday night on Attorney General William Barr's complaints about President Donald Trump's tweets targeting the Justice Department and they couldn't have been more distinct: Supporters of the Trump administration took Barr at face value and praised him. Critics thought he was faking it.
"The attorney general says it's getting in the way of doing his job," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Fox News anchor Bret Baier. "Maybe the president should listen to the attorney general."
"Barr doesn't care where it takes him," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said to Fox's Sean Hannity. "He just looks for justice."
Barr's detractors didn't think the attorney general was looking for justice. Rather, many thought he objected to Trump's tweets because they expose the administration's true motives.
"I have no doubt that when the president tweets, he is causing problems for the Attorney General," Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who served as a manager in Trump's impeachment proceedings, said in a tweet late Thursday. "But he's not making it harder for Barr to do the right thing, he's making it harder for him to get away with doing the wrong thing." On CNN, Demings also speculated that Barr and Trump were "in cahoots."
In his interview with ABC News, Barr said it was "time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases." He added that such statements from Trump "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 interview was the latest development in the ongoing controversy surrounding the Justice Department's handling of a sentencing recommendation for Trump's longtime confidant Roger Stone.
There were plenty of plausible and practical reasons for Barr's comments and their timing. The chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington has expressed concern about judges being pressured in the wake of Trump's tweets and Barr's statement allows government lawyers to disown the president's comments when they appear in court.
Barr is also facing unrest from lawyers within and outside of the department, including from the New York City bar, over the handling of the Stone case and Trump's perceived role in it. The main thrust of Barr's interview with ABC's Pierre Thomas was to explain that Trump played no role but that his tweets made it look otherwise.
The reactions followed what appeared, on its face, to be an act of rebellion by Barr in the wake of an extraordinary Justice Department flip-flop on the sentencing recommendations for Stone, who was found guilty of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his efforts to get hacked Democratic campaign emails from WikiLeaks.
It started Monday when line prosecutors in the Justice Department recommended that U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison, on the heavier side of the federal sentencing guidelines for such crimes. In an early-morning tweet Tuesday, Trump erupted at the length of the sentence for his confidant and said it couldn't be allowed to stand.
Later that same day, the Justice Department overruled the prosecutors and submitted a revised memorandum to Berman, saying the original recommendation "could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances." All four prosecutors withdrew from the case and one quit his job entirely. Trump then spent Tuesday night firing off a series of tweets attacking the prosecutors and Berman, who is scheduled to sentence Stone on Feb. 20. The president went on to congratulate Barr for the switch on Wednesday, furthering the idea, denied by Barr, that he acted under pressure from Trump.
Democrats and others remained skeptical of Barr's intent on Thursday.
"Barr isn't objecting to Trump's political interference with the Justice Department to undermine the rule of law," observed Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. "He's saying Trump shouldn't tell everyone about it."
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., pointed to Barr's reputation as "the president's defender."
"Basically, the attorney general was saying, 'Look I got this. I'm executing it. I'm doing all the things you want me to do. I'm your Roy Cohn,' " Cicilline told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, referencing Trump's late fixer and lawyer. " 'Don't make my job harder by tweeting about it and drawing attention to it.' "
John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard M. Nixon who became the chief witness against him before Congress, thought that "Barr staged it and I'd bet with a heads up to the White House." Meanwhile, Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, tweeted that Barr is "shrewd, deliberate, smart, calculating, careful, and full of it."
Barr's interview was potentially risky, considering Trump's anger at criticism from anywhere, let alone from within his own cabinet. But Barr, while complaining about the impact of the tweets on the department's mission, didn't take issue with the substance of Trump's comments, including one suggesting that the judge in Stone's case was biased.
And Barr's comments didn't elicit the expected flurry of backlash from Trump and his allies. Instead, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement saying, "The President wasn't bothered by the comments at all." She added that Trump "has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law."
McConnell and other top Republicans, including McCarthy and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoed the White House, taking to social media and cable TV shows to support Barr.
The belief that Barr's statement was driven by unspoken motives stems in part from a steep mountain of distrust for the attorney general that began building with his attempt to spin the results of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia probe in April before it was released to the public. The negative sentiments only increased in the weeks that followed.
Many Democrats and critics in the legal community concluded that Barr had abandoned his commitment to the integrity of the agency and keeping the duties of DOJ lawyers insulated from political pressure in favor of turning the department into a tool for the president.
“I don’t think he’s fit for the office because I think what he’s done is undertake a campaign essentially to undermine the Department of Justice,” Donald Ayer, a former colleague of Barr and deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, said on MSNBC Thursday night. “Nothing he said today changes anything.”