Trump Lashes Out Again at DOJ’s Independence

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Once upon a time, President Richard Nixon turned the Department of Justice into his personal flunkies in various different conspiracies to break the law. Before it was over, his first two attorneys general wound up in legal trouble. A third attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the further demands of the president.

During the Watergate investigation, the Justice Department made sure that the White House was updated on every development, which White House Counsel John Dean then used to prepare the false testimony of the campaign and White House staffers involved, and otherwise keep Justice from learning the truth. It was the revelation of this situation that eventually produced the first Watergate special prosecutor, and the universal demand that he be replaced by another independent prosecutor after Nixon had him removed. 

The outcome of all of this was a set of rules and norms about the independence of Department of Justice prosecutions from presidential and White House involvement. A lot of Watergate-era reforms have been either useless or counterproductive, but everyone up through the Barack Obama presidency agreed to abide by them, and they became an important component of how the U.S. system produces the rule of law.

It’s those rules and norms that President Donald Trump is bulldozing when he demands prosecution of his political opponents – a demand he’s making when there is, remember, already an inspector general investigation. Trump isn’t satisfied to let that take its course. He’s demanding, in effect, specific outcomes. Which makes it very obvious why those post-Watergate reforms were wise; if the Justice Department does find wrongdoing during the previous administration, we want to be able to believe that the finding was free from political interference. Unfortunately, Trump (and Devin Nunes) have made that impossible.

That’s not even counting the recklessness involved in outing intelligence informants

Whether Trump is actually going to get what he wants is very much an open question. Rather than force a confrontation (with unpredictable and dangerous consequences), the Justice Department has ducked the issue for now by just adding Trump’s latest complaint to the inspector general’s docket. Not ideal, but sometimes kicking the can down the road can solve the problem. 

That said, it remains the case that the accusations made by Trump, Nunes and Republican-aligned media are lacking in both evidence and logic. If we believe what everyone (other than Trump and Nunes) has found – that Russian involvement in the election was real – then it’s hardly surprising that the FBI would be extremely interested in any unusual contacts the Russians had made with U.S. campaigns and would follow up with a serious investigation. And Trump surely didn’t help matters with his talk on the campaign trail of asking for help from the people involved in the Russian efforts. It’s also hardly surprising that badly conflicted figures such as Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn would come to the attention of investigators. Perhaps all of this will turn out to have been more or less innocent (other than what Mueller has already charged). But the idea that an FBI probe could only have been a partisan witch hunt is, well, nonsense. 

The clincher on all of this is the argument that Jonathan Chait and others have been making: It simply defies logic that a Justice Department conspiracy against Trump’s election would have maintained secrecy well beyond Election Day. If the idea was to sink Trump, then why not leak – or simply announce – the investigation? The evidence seems to show that everyone involved took special care to make sure that no word got out at all about what was happening. And as we know, the New York Times did in fact falsely report that there was no Trump-Russia investigation, while everyone heard plenty about the FBI’s Hillary Clinton investigation. Of course, that logic says nothing at all about Robert Mueller’s current shop. But it seems fairly close to conclusive to me about what Trump has been ranting about recently. There was just no point to having a pre-election investigation for the purposes of electoral advantage without a plan to make it public. 

What Trump is doing by shattering the norm of Department of Justice independence is a disaster for U.S. democracy, even if he was completely correct in his accusations. That instead he’s just repeating nonsense others are feeding him is even worse. And, yes, it’s another notch for the abuse-of-power count should the House ever decide to draw up articles of impeachment. 

1. Amy Erica Smith and Carly Wayne at Mischiefs of Faction on politics, religion and Jerusalem.

2. Julia Gray at the Monkey Cage on the stability of the post-war political and economic order

3. Perry Bacon Jr. and Dhrumil Mehta on Trump’s twitter audience

4. Robert Shapiro on economic growth during the Trump presidency. Worth pointing out: All the evidence shows that economic growth early in a presidency has no measurable effect on re-election. Voters appear to have very, very short attention spans; economic growth matters a lot, but only near the election. 

5. Jeffrey Young on what’s happening with health insurance premiums

6. And I can endorse all six sections of Matt Glassman’s suggested constitutional amendment, although I think it goes further than just “technical” corrections. Note that everyone should support eliminating the electors from the Electoral College even if they also think the electoral college is a bad idea. 

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