NOEL KING, HOST:
The headlines out of Washington, D.C., have changed in a really interesting way over the past 24 hours. Earlier this week, when you turned on the radio or the TV or opened a newspaper, you would see lots of concern about President Trump's influence over the Justice Department and its head, Attorney General William Barr. It started when the president tweeted that he was disappointed about the prison sentence recommended for his friend, Roger Stone. And then senior officials at the DOJ overruled the sentencing recommendation, lowering it. And then President Trump praised Attorney General Barr on Twitter. Now, to confront all of the criticism, Barr went on ABC News yesterday and said this.
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WILLIAM BARR: I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody. And I said it - whether it's Congress, newspaper, editorial boards or the president. I'm going to do what I think is right. And I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.
KING: Jack Goldsmith ran the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush, and he joins me now from Harvard University. Good morning, sir.
JACK GOLDSMITH: Good morning.
KING: So you are a former DOJ official. And I wonder what went through your head when you saw Attorney General Barr say, I can't do my job with a constant background commentary, by which he means, I wish the president would stop tweeting, which he said explicitly. What did you think about that?
GOLDSMITH: I was very happy to hear him say it, and I wish he'd said it when he first became attorney general because it's been a problem ever since he started the job.
KING: OK. Barr has said that he planned to modify Roger Stone's sentencing recommendation even before President Trump tweeted. Do you think this interview was about telling the president, please stop tweeting because it undermines me? Or was this more about confronting optics, the fact that this looked bad, it looked like the president had this influence?
GOLDSMITH: I think it's actually both, and I think they're the same thing. As Attorney General Barr said in his interview, the appearance of evenhanded justice is absolutely vital to what the Justice Department does. He claims to have made this decision independent of talking to or hearing from the president. But when the president tweets that this should happen and then applauds him for doing it, it makes Barr look like a lackey, and it makes it impossible for him to do the job he's supposed to be doing as attorney general. So I don't think - I think optics is very important. I think Barr was acknowledging that. The appearance of justice is very important.
KING: We have seen the president get into disagreements with his Cabinet officials before and get very upset with them. But in this case, interestingly, the White House came out a couple hours after the interview and says the president wasn't bothered by Barr's comments. Is that because the president ultimately got what he wanted in the end? The sentencing recommendation was, in fact, lowered.
GOLDSMITH: They didn't actually - I don't think - if the president got what he wanted, he's not getting a good thing because, first of all, the Justice Department basically didn't change much. I mean, there was a sentencing recommendation. The change was to not recommend anything and to let the judge decide. Ultimately, this is the judge's call, not the Justice Department's call. What the president has accomplished is to make his Justice Department look political and bad. He has angered the judge. And I can't imagine this is going to help Stone's sentence. So I don't see how the president has won anything here.
KING: Can you explain that a little more? You don't see how this will help Stone's sentence. Is that because, ultimately, the judge is the one that decides?
GOLDSMITH: Yes. Ultimately, it's the judge's call. Judge Amy Berman Jackson has also been attacked by the president. It - appearances in all of these things matters. Neither the attorney general nor the judge wants to look like he or she is under the influence of the president. So when the president tweets like this, he actually makes it harder for them to do what the president wants them to do. So I suspect that this is going to end up backfiring for the president.
KING: OK. I want to play another clip of Attorney General Barr on ABC News last night describing how he sees his role as attorney general.
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BARR: As I said at my confirmation hearing, I think the essential role of the attorney general is to keep law enforcement, the criminal process, sacrosanct, to make sure there is no political interference in it.
KING: Now, this whole affair possibly got so much attention because Barr has been accused of taking control of matters involving the president in the past. Now, I'm thinking specifically of his handling and his role out of the Mueller report. By taking the president's side so publicly in politically charged matters before, did Barr open himself up to this kind of concern and speculation over the president's influence on him?
GOLDSMITH: I do think he's opened himself up a little bit; I think less so in the Mueller report than in some interviews he's done, in some speeches he's given where he said things like the president's not the norm breaker, his political enemies are breaking norms, where he seemed to talk about law enforcement in sometimes political terms, where he has bent over backwards to defend the president. So I think what the attorney general said yesterday is absolutely right. I actually think that's what Barr is committed to. But I do think he has opened himself up to this through some of his speeches and actions.
KING: You wrote in an essay for The Dispatch that what Barr needs to do is make the president stop barking politicized commands - your words - to the Department of Justice, or he needs to stop acting in ways consistent with those orders, and if he can't do that, he should quit. Any sense that this man is looking to quit?
GOLDSMITH: I don't know if he's looking to quit, but he said very clearly yesterday that he can't do his job - it's impossible for him to do his job - if the president keeps tweeting about matters under advisement in the Justice Department, especially matters that relate to investigations related to the president or that seem to serve or connect to the president's political interests. Those are absolutely at the core of a normal Justice Department independence. Barr was right that he can't do his job if the president is going to tweet like this. So I don't know if it was an implied threat to quit, but he made clear he can't do his job if the president keeps tweeting.
KING: In the couple seconds we have left, after the Mueller investigation, the House Judiciary Committee called on Barr to appear. He will do that next month. What does he need to accomplish, just quickly?
GOLDSMITH: He needs to make very clear that he makes the decisions in the Justice Department and the president has no influence on those decisions.
KING: OK. Jack Goldsmith headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush. Sir, thanks for your time.
GOLDSMITH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.