WASHINGTON - Attorney General William Barr offered his first public comments Thursday since a controversy erupted at the Justice Department this week. And while he offered a significant rebuke of President Donald Trump, Barr's comments seem as much geared toward creating a veneer of independence as addressing the root of the controversy.
Barr told ABC News that Trump's tweets about ongoing criminal matters - in this case, Roger Stone's - "make it impossible for me to do my job."
"I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases," Barr said.
Barr clarified that he made the controversial decision to overrule the career prosecutors' recommendation that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison Monday night - before Trump tweeted in the wee hours of Tuesday morning in opposition to the recommendation.
"Do you go forward with what you think is the right decision, or do you pull back because of the tweet?" Barr said. "And that just sort of illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be."
Barr is right that this is exactly why presidents are generally cautious about weighing in on ongoing criminal matters. If the president does that, how can you discern what is truly independent from what is being done in response to presidential pressure? His comments are also stronger, notably, than some Republican members of Congress who essentially shrugged at the entire situation.
But it's also important to recognize how much Barr gains by being seen as rebuking Trump - and how much his answers don't really address the true controversy here.
The fact is that, even if Barr made this decision before Trump's tweets and Trump never directly requested the action - even if there is no relation between what happened and what Trump has said - this is still highly problematic. It's the president's most senior political appointee in the Justice Department personally intervening in an unorthodox manner in the case of perhaps Trump's longest-serving political ally. It's precisely the kind of case in which you'd want to make sure you try doubly hard to avoid even the appearance of political influence of any kind - whether that influence emanated from Trump or not. Instead, Barr decided this was the situation he needed to get involved in.
And to be clear, Barr confirmed in the interview that he was personally responsible for the decision, which is as significant a revelation as anything else:
"Barr said he told his staff that night that the Justice Department has to amend its recommendation. Hours later, the president tweeted that it was 'horrible and very unfair' and that 'the real crimes were on the other side,' " ABC reported.
So there it is: Trump's own, appointed attorney general who has repeatedly taken controversial pro-Trump actions, doing so yet again. And just as Trump didn't have to tell Barr to do what he did with the Mueller report to make that controversial, he didn't have to tell him what to do with Stone's sentencing recommendation to make it controversial.
In fact, you could make a pretty compelling argument that Barr isn't rebuking Trump so much as telling the president how to take the heat off some of Barr's more controversial decisions. If Trump didn't tweet what he did this week, after all, perhaps the Stone decision wouldn't have blown up as much.
If Barr had a more varied history when it comes to decisions that directly involve the president, it would be easier to accept that this is truly about the independence of the Justice Department. But Barr hasn't been terribly concerned about the perception that he's not independent before, and we should focus more on his actions than on a rare apparent rebuke of presidential tweets.