William Barr's criticism of Trump tweets reveals a 'genuine frustration' with U.S. president, says reporter
It's fair to wonder if Barr is just posturing, says Washington Post's Matt Zapotosky
After U.S. Attorney General William Barr criticized President Donald Trump's tweets about the Department of Justice in an ABC News interview earlier this week, reports emerged that the longtime Trump ally is contemplating his resignation.
While some have suggested it's simply posturing given he's yet to step down, Washington Post reporter Matt Zapotosky says the comments comes from "genuine frustration."
Despite the warnings from Barr, Trump hasn't stopped tweeting about the DOJ — most recently after Roger Stone, his long-time advisor, was sentenced to 40 months in prison for witness tampering and lying to the U.S. Congress.
Now, Trump's comments have put Barr and the future of his position under the spotlight.
Zapotosky covers the Justice Department for the Post's national security team. He spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the possibility of Barr resigning and how Stone's sentencing plays into it.
Here is part of that conversation.
How surprised were you that Bill Barr told Trump associates that he's thinking about stepping down?
It is surprising that he is telling people in the president's orbit — people close to the president both inside and outside the White House — explicitly that he is considering quitting.
That sort of escalates things beyond where he went in his ABC News interview.
Do you think that threat is real? Does he mean it?
Some people are thinking ... maybe that was just posturing. I've seen a lot of left-leaning commentators say this is all kind of a show….
If you talk to people close to Barr, they say that his frustration with the president's tweets is very genuine. He has been frustrated for some time [and] he has been telling the president privately for some time to cut this out.
Though, he has not pulled the trigger on quitting, so it's fair to wonder, is this some degree of posturing as opposed to a real threat to quit?
That frustration was evident in the ABC interview because Barr was speaking critically of Trump. That's unusual for any sitting member of Trump's cabinet, but especially for Barr because since he became attorney general, he's been criticized for defending the president's worst impulses.
What changed last week that led him to take that step?
In recent weeks, Barr was just growing increasingly frustrated with the tweets generally.
Then the kind of straw that broke the camel's back was there was this great internal debate about what recommendation prosecutors should give to a court about the sentence that Roger Stone, one of the president's long-time friends, should face in a case for lying to Congress.
The president tweeted about that case after career prosecutors recommended a seven-to-nine-year penalty. After the president's tweet, Barr intervened to reduce that recommendation, and he came under immense fire from inside the Justice Department [and] from former officials for what they saw as him stepping in to help a friend of the president.
Importantly, Barr says he had made up his mind to do that before the president's tweet, but the president's tweet frustrated him because it made him seem like he was just a lackey for the president … and that led to that remarkable ABC News interview where he called the president out publicly and said stop tweeting.
I wonder how that intervention looks now that Judge Berman has made her decision because Roger Stone was sentenced this week to 40 months in prison, which is a far cry from the seven to nine years that prosecutors initially recommended last year.
But when that sentence came down, it seemed like the intervention by Barr was never necessary because the judge decided on a lesser sentence anyway. Was that sentence good or bad for Barr?
This was only ever a sentencing recommendation — it was always going to be up to the judge. And she kind of came down where Barr probably wanted her to, so inside the Justice Department, people were relieved by that. People close to Barr were saying ... we feel somewhat vindicated.
Barr has faced so much heat for his defence of Trump and some people say that he's changed the Justice Department and the way justice is administered in the United States.
What is in it for him to be defending this president with as much power as he has?
Barr would tell you that nothing is really in it for him.
He's been the attorney general before. It's not like he's looking to advance in his career.… So he wouldn't just be sort of out to protect the president personally.
People close to a Barr would tell you that he has long been a believer in executive power and a strong executive branch, and his worldview on that just sort of lines up with Trump's.
So that's why he's in here doing the job. Certainly, to some legal observers, it comes across like he is just protecting the president ... but he would probably tell you that's not true.
We know that within the Justice Department, some officials — both current and former — have reacted to Barr's apparent enabling of Trump by rejecting it and saying that he should resign.
Is there any sympathy being shown to Barr inside the department? Are people closing ranks around him and supporting him in any way?
His ABC News interview moved some people. I think some people saw that as finally, him — a sitting cabinet secretary … calling out the president on what he saw as wrongdoing, or bad behaviour. So some people liked that about Barr and morale improved.
Other people kind of thought ... this all seems like a big show. He's just doing this to try to make us happy, but it's not going to mean anything. The president's still going to behave in the way he has behaved and attack the Justice Department, and Barr isn't going to do anything about it.
Inside the department, the reaction is sort of mixed. Outside the department, lots of former officials want Barr to step down.
His suggestion, that he may be thinking of stepping down, remains out there ... Is it a standoff or is it a performance at this point?
I think it is a true standoff in that Barr is frustrated. But what I think people can fairly question now is, is he really going to quit?
After Roger Stone was sentenced, President Trump gave a lengthy speech about the case, openly defying Barr's request to stop talking publicly about Justice Department criminal cases.
So I do think Barr has some genuine frustration and it's fair to wonder if he'll really go as far as quitting … But his frustration does seem to be real.
Calling out the president is remarkable in its own right.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, download our podcast or click Listen above.