But what ensued on Capitol Hill on Wednesday appeared to be less of a break-the-glass moment of crisis and more of a recurring episode in a three-year-old soap opera: While Democrats were aghast, members of the president’s party either expressed mild dismay or excused Trump’s tampering entirely.
“It doesn’t bother me at all, as long as the judge has the final decision,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who sharply criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for alleged politicization of the Justice Department.
He added about the president’s tweet: “I think a president’s got freedom of speech just like everybody else has.”
Democrats cast the lack of pushback as further evidence that Trump feels emboldened, unchecked and unleashed after his Senate acquittal on two impeachment charges — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — at his trial, which ended last week.
Besides the president’s public statements on the Stone case, Democrats pointed to his dismissal of subordinates who testified in the House impeachment probe and his decision to withdraw one executive nomination this week — that of a former U.S. attorney who had overseen the Stone case at an earlier stage — and the possible abandonment of a Defense Department nominee who had questioned a White House hold on military aid to Ukraine.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) seized on the demise of the nomination of Jessie K. Liu to serve as undersecretary of the Treasury Department for terrorism and financial crimes as proof that Trump is “on a retribution tour.”
“I mean, it’s just one thing after another,” said Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, where Liu was set to testify Thursday at her confirmation hearing. “The president clearly feels he’s unleashed. And [Republicans] all said he learned his lesson — the lesson he learned is he can get away with whatever he wants.”
Asked what lessons he learned from impeachment, Trump said Wednesday, “That the Democrats are crooked. They got a lot of crooked things going. That they’re vicious.”
Tempering the Democratic outrage has been the reality of their tenuous political position: In the Senate minority, they have no direct power to call hearings or force action by the Republican majority. The Democratic House majority, meanwhile, has been chastened by the failed impeachment effort and a desire among party leaders to turn a page from Trump investigations and toward an economic policy message as Election Day draws closer.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that Barr would make his first appearance as Trump’s attorney general before the panel on March 31. Nadler told Barr in a letter that the recent tumult has raised “grave questions about your leadership of the Department of Justice.”
Nadler indicated that the panel would inquire about the handling of the Stone case and other prosecutions related to Trump, as well as Barr’s decision to evaluate material that Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, had gathered from Ukrainian sources claiming to have damaging information about former vice president Joe Biden and his family.
The seven-week delay in getting answers vexed many Democrats, who cast Trump’s intervention in Stone’s sentencing as a matter of grave constitutional concern.
“Seven weeks would not be an inordinate delay in normal times,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member. “This is Trump time we’re dealing with, and so that is multiple felonies and high crimes and misdemeanors from now.”
Nadler declined to comment about the timing of the hearing.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday chose stronger words, calling the overt intervention in the Stone case “one of the most horrible things President Trump has done” and “Third World behavior, not American behavior.”
The decision to overrule the initial sentencing recommendation prompted four career prosecutors to withdraw from the case Tuesday.
Schumer’s call for emergency oversight hearings putting Barr and other Justice Department officials under oath was quickly dismissed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said Wednesday that after a conversation with Barr, he was “very confident” that the department has acted properly. Graham also gently rapped Trump for speaking publicly about the case.
“These people were way out of bounds in my view,” he said of the front-line prosecutors, who recommended a sentence as long as nine years for Stone after his conviction for lying to Congress and tampering with a witness. “You’re not gonna go to seven to nine years on a 70-year-old guy when the alleged victim said they didn’t feel threatened. That’s just revenge. That’s sour grapes. But having said that, the president shouldn’t have said anything.”
The GOP reaction this week was markedly different from when, in 2016, then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch met privately with former president Bill Clinton on a plane at the Phoenix airport while federal investigators moved to close the case on Hillary Clinton as she moved toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) at the time called for a special prosecutor to take over the Clinton case. On Wednesday, he fully defended the decision to overrule the front-line prosecutors’ sentencing decision.
“I think the world is sort of turned on its head where subordinates somehow dictate policy,” he said. “In this case, the judge is going to make the decision, not anybody else.”
Asked about Trump’s tweets and the Clinton-Lynch uproar, he said, “The president has First Amendment rights, too.”
Top Republican leaders offered little pushback. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to comment on the Stone case at his weekly media availability Tuesday, while Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) offered only faint criticism Wednesday: “I’m not a lawyer, but strikes me at least that you want to let the legal process move forward the way it’s intended to.”
Other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were similarly reluctant to comment Wednesday on a matter squarely inside the panel’s oversight portfolio.
“I want to get the information on it before I give you a comment,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
“I don’t know the facts of the case; I haven’t been following it,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
“I think the tweet was problematic and gave the appearance that the president was more involved than he actually was,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.).
Meanwhile, the Republican senators who have been more willing to criticize Trump did not go much further.
“I don’t think the president should be determining what the sentences are,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), while Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Trump “should not have gotten involved,” and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, “Politics should not play a part in law enforcement,” without directly criticizing the president.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.