The independence of the Justice Department is so important to the workings of democracy that even a hint of meddling from the White House can be enough to stir a scandal.
In 2006, the abrupt firing of seven U.S. attorneys — the lead federal prosecutors in several jurisdictions — prompted the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and embarrassed President George W. Bush.
A decade later, former president Bill Clinton caused a public uproar when he met privately on a plane waiting on a tarmac with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at a time when the FBI was investigating his wife's email practices.
Today, those episodes appear downright quaint compared with a president who has no qualms saying that the nation's chief law enforcement agency is there to do his personal bidding. “I have (an) absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” President Trump recently told The New York Times.
On Wednesday, he turned his attention to the courts and the law. In the space of a few hours, he smeared the federal court system as "broken and unfair" and the nation's libel laws as "a sham and a disgrace." Why? Because the courts and the law are standing in the way of what he wants.
A federal judge in California on Tuesday put on hold the president's plan to end a program that shields 800,000 young immigrants from deportation. And under the nation's libel laws, which protect freedom of the press, Trump failed in an attempt last week to block publication of a scathing new book about him.
Such attacks on the rule of law are more befitting a wannabe dictator than the president of a free country. By putting political pressure on the Justice Department, Trump strikes at the heart of its mission to prosecute crimes and uphold the law without fear or favor. It was bad enough when, during the 2016 campaign, Trump called his opponent "crooked Hillary" and basked in the crowds' chants of “lock her up.” Now that he is president, such comments are even more disturbing.
The president has interfered by both word and deed numerous times in the workings of the Justice Department, the parent agency of the FBI:
►Trump has repeatedly suggested that the department target his political adversaries. "Why aren't they going after Hillary Clinton?" Trump wondered in November. This month, he tweeted that the Justice Department was part of the "deep state," a reprehensible and absurd insult, and that Clinton aide Huma Abedin should be jailed after classified emails were found on the laptop of Abedin’s estranged husband. Ummm, is the president aware that in this country, people have to be investigated, charged, tried in court and found guilty before they’re sent to prison?
►Former FBI director James Comey testified last year that Trump demanded loyalty and that after he demurred, the president fired him. Manhattan’s former top federal prosecutor, Preet Bharara, says he was fired after Trump made three phone calls to Bharara, who feared those calls would raise questions of impropriety. Afterward, Trump interviewed a candidate to succeed Bharara, as well as a candidate for the chief federal prosecutor job in Washington. While no law bars such interviews, and lawyers with political ties to the party in power are often nominated, presidents have generally kept hands off to prevent even the appearance of impropriety. Not Trump. His interviews are all the more troubling because prosecutors in these jurisdictions could end up investigating his presidency or his family's businesses.
►Last March, Trump, using his White House counsel as go-between, tried to prevent Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, months before the inquiry was turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a recent Times report. Trump “erupted in anger” after learning that Sessions would recuse, saying he expected the attorney general to protect him.
Protecting the president is not part of the attorney general's job description. In fact, during confirmation hearings, Sessions was repeatedly asked whether he could rein in the president if he veered from the law, and Sessions pledged he'd be able to "say no" if necessary.
Trump isn’t the first president to attempt to wield power over the nation’s chief law enforcement agency. John F. Kennedy named his brother as attorney general. Richard Nixon tried to get his attorney general to fire the first Watergate special prosecutor. The attorney general resigned rather than obey, and Nixon's presidency ended badly.
The nation’s respect for the law has already been damaged by Trump's frightening attempts to demand loyalty, direct prosecutions, and smear judges and courts. That cloud will remain until the president starts acting like this is a democracy, not a banana republic.
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