If every FBI subject were as loose-lipped and oblivious as President Donald Trump, theyâd need to build more federal prisons. His latest outburst came on âFox & Friendsâ Thursday morning: âAnd our Justice Department - which I try and stay away from, but at some point I wonât - our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia!â Several aspects of this require scrutiny.
First, if Trump is âtrying,â heâs not trying very hard. Consider his ongoing threats to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, his rage at Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his decision to recuse himself from Russia matters, his request of then-FBI Director James Comey to give fired national security adviser Michael Flynn a pass, his request of âloyaltyâ from Comey, his firing of Comey, his pressure campaign to oust former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, his constant hectoring to investigate his former political opponent Hillary Clinton and his unfounded accusations of FBI corruption. If that is âstaying awayâ from the Justice Department one shudders to think what interference would look like.
Former White House counsel Norman Eisen explains, âObstruction occurs when anyone interferes with a law enforcement investigation with âcorrupt intentâ (as all America now knows thanks to Trump turning our media into a long-running criminal law seminar).â He points to âa mosaic of evidence, substantial evidence, of obstruction, that was deepened by Trumpâs reported repeated threats to fire Robert Mueller after he took over investigating âthis Russia thing.â Now comes yet another threat to interfere.â He adds, âCorrupt intent is indicated by the long pattern of self-interested dealing, not to mention the spurious nature of the âkind of stuffâ Trump wants DOJ to look at, and his premature declaration regarding collusion.â
Second, Trumpâs language betrays his motive to interfere with, to obstruct, the Russia investigation. Ironically, âcorrupt intent,â usually difficult to prove, is now being demonstrated to millions of viewers. âTrumpâs ominous statement that âat some point [he] wonâtâ stay âaway from our Justice Departmentâ can help weaponize public and hopefully congressional support for measures to protect Mueller and Rosenstein and, in that sense, the remark is helpful to Mueller,â says constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe. Trump persists in telling us he wants to rid himself of what he thinks is a witch hunt. However, former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance tells me, âIt is not up to the President to decide which criminal cases get investigated. And itâs especially important to adhere to this rule of law if the President tries to interfere with an investigation that is coming perilously close to his friends, family and possibly even himself. Otherwise, there is no justice.â Indeed, the bipartisan bill to protect Mueller passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 14 to 7 with four GOP votes. (Now itâs up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ky., to decide if he will exercise his constitutional obligations or if heâll continue as Trumpâs enabler.)
And that brings us to the reason Trumpâs incessant threats and efforts to micromanage the Justice Department are so dangerous. Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for the Humanities wrote a prescient piece warning about the threats to liberal democracies when leaders use law enforcement as a political weapon or shield. âAuthoritarian regimes, of course, are marked by political interference in military and law enforcement,â she writes. âIn Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, a deep politicization of the police and military abetted authoritarian rule in the 1970s and 1980s and continues to cast a pall over their democracies. Elected leaders who wish to make their democracies more authoritarian often start with their countryâs security apparatus.â From there, a downward spiral begins:
âAs forces politicize and are seen as connected to one party or another, the principle of equality before the law erodes. Agencies are viewed as protecting friends and punishing enemies, not upholding the laws of a nation. Security agents become increasingly distrusted by portions of the populace, who see these agencies not as enforcing justice, but as upholding a political order tilted against certain citizens. Distrust of the government grows, leading sub-populations to turn to gangs, vigilante self-defense, and militias to protect themselves.â
And that is the real challenge posed by Trump. Will he reset a new, low standard for manipulation of the Justice Department and FBI? If Trump gets away with this, how long will it be before the next Democratic president goes after her enemies or orders her handpicked attorney general to ignore ethical rules and protect him from prosecutors? Trump is doing great damage to democratic norms; unless he is held accountable, weâll start down a slippery slope in which the rule of law and an apolitical criminal-justice system are things of the past.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center perspective.