WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday praised Attorney General William Barr for “taking charge” after the Justice Department asked for a lighter prison term for his long-time adviser Roger Stone, raising further concerns among Democrats that he is trying to influence a high-profile criminal case.
Trump’s comments came one day after the Justice Department backed off from its initial sentencing recommendation for the longtime Republican operative, a highly unusual move that sent shock waves through Washington and prompted all four U.S. prosecutors to quit the case.
Democrats called for an investigation, and accused Trump of purging the U.S. government of perceived enemies following his acquittal on impeachment charges last week.
Republican lawmakers, who almost unanimously backed Trump during the impeachment process, offered muted criticism of the president but rejected calls to investigate whether Trump’s political concerns were influencing law enforcement.
“I don’t think he should be commenting on cases in the system. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, Graham said he would not call Barr to testify about the revised sentencing decision.
Stone, a self-proclaimed “dirty trickster,” was found guilty last year of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering.
After Trump criticized prosecutors who recommended a sentence of seven to nine years, the Justice Department asked Judge Amy Berman Jackson to ignore that filing and impose whatever sentence she thought appropriate. Justice Department officials say Trump did not influence that decision.
“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday.
Stone is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 20 after being found guilty in November on seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering stemming from the government investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Stone and his lawyers have not spoken with Trump about the latest developments in his case, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
Trump also targeted Berman Jackson and the outgoing prosecutors in other tweets, and retweeted a post that urged a full pardon of Stone as well as another former Trump adviser, Michael Flynn.
Stone and Flynn, Trump’s former White House national security adviser, were among a number of Trump associates who were found or pleaded guilty in U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which Trump has called a “witch hunt.”
Trump appointed Barr last year after firing Jeff Sessions, who the president had frequently criticized for recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller probe.
The White House also on Tuesday dropped a top prosecutor who oversaw the Stone case, withdrawing the nomination for Jesse Liu to serve a new post in the Treasury Department. Liu had been scheduled to appear publicly before the Senate on Thursday.
The White House declined to comment on Liu’s nomination or say whether he would pardon Stone or Flynn. said Trump did not interfere in the case.
“While he has the right to have a conversation with the attorney general, he did not,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters.
Legal experts called the department’s change of course highly unusual, though some said the initial recommendation did appear severe.
In Congress, House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler said he would probe the reversal and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer asked the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to investigate.
“Trump is going around getting even with people. Senate Republicans told us he was going to get better, and he didn’t,” Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown told reporters.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski agreed that impeachment did not seem to have altered Trump’s behavior.
“There haven’t been very strong indicators this week that he has,” she told reporters.
Others said they saw nothing wrong.
“I’m not disturbed about it at all,” Republican Senator Tim Scott told reporters.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Susan Cornwell, Alex Alper and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Alistair Bell