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Donald Trump claims to have 'legal right' to interfere in criminal cases but chooses not to

U.S. President Donald Trump. Source: ABACA

Sources close to the president said Trump has a greater sense of freedom in the wake of his Senate acquittal.

US President Donald Trump claims has "the legal right" to interfere in criminal cases, capping a tumultuous week that raised questions about whether he is eroding the independence of the US legal system.

Trump's criticism of the judge, jury and prosecutors in the criminal case of his longtime adviser Roger Stone prompted an unusual rebuke from Attorney General William Barr, his top law enforcement official and has spurred new demands for investigation from the Democrats who unsuccessfully tried to remove the Republican president from office.

It is the latest in a string of strong actions by Trump since the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him of impeachment charges last week.

U.S. President Donald Trump.
U.S. President Donald Trump.
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Trump has transferred or fired government officials who testified about his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a potential political rival in November's presidential election.

He also dropped his nomination of former US Attorney Jessie Liu, who oversaw the Stone case, for another government post in the Treasury Department.

Sources close to the president said Trump has a greater sense of freedom in the wake of his Senate acquittal.

"You have to remember, he's not 'of' government. He gets frustrated when people tell him something can't get done. He's like: 'Just get it done,'" said one administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Barr said on Thursday that Trump's attacks made it "impossible" for him to do his job leading the Justice Department, telling ABC News in an interview: "It's time to stop the tweeting."

Trump "has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case," Barr added.

(L-R) U.S. Attorney General William Barr and U.S. President Donald Trump.
(L-R) U.S. Attorney General William Barr and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Getty Images North America

The president responded on Friday morning. "This doesn't mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!" he wrote on Twitter.

Administration officials said Barr did not clear his remarks with Trump. They said Trump shrugged them off when told about them by aides.

Trump's insistence that he has the right to interfere in criminal cases runs counter to the practice of previous US presidents, who have generally kept an arms-length distance from the Justice Department since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that led then-President Richard Nixon to resign from office.

"Trump goes farther than Nixon, though. He's proud to openly corrupt the justice system and use it to target his enemies and protect his friends," Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in a prepared statement.

Trump's running commentary on the Stone case calls into question whether Barr can oversee US law enforcement in an independent manner, said Bruce Green, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Fordham School of Law.

"Given the sequence of events, it's doubtful that Barr's effort to distance himself from the President's tweets will be enough of a cure. He'll have to keep working to rebuild public confidence," Green told Reuters.

Barr has been an outspoken defender of the president and has aggressively sought to implement his agenda, frequently drawing charges from Democrats and former Justice Department officials that he is politicising the rule of law.

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