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Trump And The Rule Of Law

Trump Gavel

In the days before he departed for a trip that will have him in Asia for much of the next two weeks, President Trump decided it was a good idea to resume his long-standing attacks on the Rule of Law:

WASHINGTON — One of President Trump’s biggest disappointments in office, by his own account, was discovering that he is not supposed to personally direct law enforcement decisions by the Justice Department and the F.B.I. So, instead, he has made himself into perhaps the most vocal critic of America’s system of justice ever to occupy the Oval Office.

Just this week, he denounced the criminal justice system as “a joke” and “a laughingstock.” He demanded that the suspect in the New York terrorist attack be executed. He spent Friday berating the Justice Department and F.B.I. for not investigating his political opponents. He then turned to the military justice system and called a court-martial decision “a complete and total disgrace.”

The repeated assaults on law enforcement cross lines that presidents have largely observed since the Watergate era, raising questions about the separation of politics and the law. But as extraordinary as Mr. Trump’s broadsides are, perhaps more striking is that investigators and prosecutors are so far ignoring the head of the executive branch in which they serve while military judges and juries are for the most part disregarding the opinions of their commander in chief.

“You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Mr. Trump said in a radio interview on Thursday on the “Larry O’Connor Show.” “I am not supposed to be involved with the F.B.I. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”

That frustration has been fueled particularly by Mr. Trump’s inability to control the special counsel investigation into whether his campaign coordinated with Russia during last year’s election, an investigation that unveiled its first criminal charges this week against Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman and two other advisers.

Mr. Trump has made clear that he sees the attorney general and the F.B.I. director as his personal agents rather than independent figures, lashing out at both for not protecting him from the Russia investigation.

In May, he fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, who later testified that he had refused Mr. Trump’s demands that he pledge loyalty and publicly declare that the president was not personally under investigation. In July, Mr. Trump told The New York Times that he would never have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known that Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the investigation.

While his lawyers have for now persuaded Mr. Trump not to publicly attack Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, the president has not ruled out firing him, a scenario that other presidents facing special prosecutors considered virtually unthinkable. Asked on Friday whether he might fire Mr. Sessions if the attorney general does not investigate Democrats, Mr. Trump left open the prospect: “I don’t know,” he said.

(…)

[I]n the past four decades, no president has sought to publicly pressure law enforcement as much as Mr. Trump.

In a barrage of a dozen tweets on Thursday night and early Friday, Mr. Trump railed at law enforcement agencies for not investigating Democrats. He cited Tony Podesta — the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta — who stepped down from his firm this week amid scrutiny of his lobbying business by Mr. Mueller. And he cited a book excerpt by Donna Brazile, the former interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman, who wrote that last year’s primaries were tilted by a fund-raising agreement that the committee made with Mrs. Clinton.

“I’m really not involved with the Justice Department,” Mr. Trump told reporters before leaving on a 12-day trip to Asia. “I’d like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at the Democrats. They should be looking at Podesta and all of that dishonesty. They should be looking at a lot of things. And a lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me.”

These last comments, which were made as Trump was getting ready to get on Marine One to head to Andrews Air Force Base to start his Asia trip, came after a tweetstorm in which he made even further demands. Keeping his focus on the allegations made by Donna Brazille in her new book, for example, Trump alleged that Hillary Clinton “stole the Democratic Primary“ from Bernie Sanders, claiming without evidence that the coordination between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee was a “major violation of Campaign Finance Laws and Money Laundering.” and that ”At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper,” He also said on Twitter that “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems.” In addition to all of this, Trump has tweeted his support for the death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the Halloween attack in New York City, saying on Twitter that he “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY.” Trump also commented on the sentence handed down in the case of Bowe Bergdahl, who received a Dishonorable Discharge and reduction in rank to Private after pleading guilty to walking away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 before being captured by the Taliban. In the past, of course, Trump had referred to Bergdahl as a “dirty, rotten traitor,” and as a “traitor” who should be executed for his crimes while a candidate for President, and said he stood by those comments shortly after Bergdahl pled guilty. As the Times article quoted above notes, those comments could a serious impact on future proceedings in both of those cases.

As many commentators have noted over the past week, these comments on Trump’s part, and his obvious efforts to exert political influence over things such as the Russia investigation and the actions of the Justice Department are unlike anything we’ve seen since the Nixon Administration. It was, of course, the effort to obstruct justice in the Watergate investigation and use the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as weapons against his political enemies that ultimately led to Nixon’s downfall. The most infamous example of that, of course, was the the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973 when Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, which Richardson refused to do. Nixon responded by firing Richardson and then Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus when he too refused to obey Nixon’s order. Ever since Watergate, though, it has been understood that there is supposed to be a firewall between the White House and the law enforcement responsibilities of the Justice Department and the Presidents since Nixon, while often frustrated by the actions of their own Justice Department, have largely followed that rule. Trump, however, has proven to be an exception to that historical rule, and his behavior in office suggests that he will just become more inclined to use the law and the courts as a weapon against his enemies as his time in office goes on.

None of this should be a surprise, of course. As we saw when he was a candidate, Trump has absolutely no inclination to refrain from attacking the legitimacy of the legal system. The most prominent example, of course, came in his attacks on the Federal District Court Judge who was presiding over the fraud lawsuits against him and his now defunct business venture “Trump University.” In those attacks, Trump referred to the Judge, Gonzalo Curiel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California as a “Mexican”notwithstanding the fact that he was born in Indiana, contended that his ‘Mexican heritage’ created some sort of conflict of interest, and claimed that Curiel was “biased” and “unfair.”  In retrospect, it’s clear that Trump’s attacks were related to Judge Curiel’s decision to authorize the release of documents related to the ongoing lawsuit, documents that clearly show the extent to which Trump’s so-called “University” was little more than a fraudulent marketing scheme. In reality, though, an examination of Judge Curiel’s rulings in the case demonstrated no evidence of the bias Trump allegedly.

As I noted back when Trump was still just a candidate, I made note of his obvious contempt for the Rule of Law:

Based both on his rhetoric and his actions, Donald Trump gives the impression of being a President who sees himself as  unconstrained by the law or the other branches of Government in the tradition of Jackson or Richard Nixon, both of whom set off Constitutional crises from which it took the nation years to recover. As in the case of those two previous Presidents, he would likely justify his actions by appealing to the same populist, anti-establishment rhetoric that has fueled his campaign from the start. The difference is that, this time, he would be President of the United States and his rhetoric would be tied to action that could do real damage to the Rule of Law and to the Constitution. Furthermore, unlike any of his predecessors, Trump seems to have command over a mob of supporters that would rush to his defense even when he was clearly wrong. This is why the arguments that equate Trump to the European far right, and even to fascists and authoritarians of the past, are completely on the mark. Either Donald Trump is lying to his supporters or he is the kind of man who cannot be trusted with political power even in a Constitutionally limited democratic republic. Under the circumstances, it would be foolish for anyone to believe that this is all a big con on Trump’s part, and much safer to assume that he quite simply cannot be trusted with political power.

His time in office has proven my assessment regarding how Trump would act have largely proven to be correct. Whether its the recent comments that I note above or his actions such as seeking to pressure James Comey and the heads of the intelligence agencies to end the investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, his decision to fire James Comey because of the Russia investigation, or his numerous attacks on his own Attorney General, Trump has demonstrated the same utter contempt for the rule of law that he did as a candidate. And he does it all with the seeming approval of his supporters and the vast majority of his fellow Republicans. In any other President, it would be a President. With this President, it’s just another day in office, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Apparently Republicans believe that tax cuts for the rich take precedence over preserving the Constitution and the Rule of Law.
    I remember when they impeached a President for the high crime and misdemeanor of lying about consensual extra-marital sex. Now they look the other way about sexual assault and myriad other far worse offenses.
    The idea that today’s Republicans have principles of any sort is laughable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  2. gVOR08 says:

    The law is for little people. It never applied to Trump before and he sure as hell doesn’t see any reason it should apply to him as President.

    (A dangerous attitude for someone with an apparent history of at least Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations and money laundering – and with Bob Mueller on his case. But no one except himself has accused him of being very bright.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  3. CSK says:

    Trump has no desire–nor, I suspect, the ability–to learn what’s actually entailed in being the president of the United States. He believes he’s the head of his own personal fiefdom, in which he not only makes the law, but he is the law.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    Americans have always had a dicey relationship with the rule of law (see., e.g., Nancy Grace’s entire career). Having politicians who ostensibly support the rule of law is critical to its continued functioning. If we get to a point where people don’t respect it, we’re in serious trouble. I thought it was very serious business when Clinton suborned perjury or Nixon tried to hide his scandals. Having a President turn the federal govt into his own private goon squad would be disastrous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  5. CSK says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Trump appears to believe that the federal government should be his own private goon squad. I don’t think he would be receptive to an explanation of why this is not so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    If anyone understands the nuances of what constitutes money laundering, it would be Trump.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. An Interested Party says:

    I thought it was very serious business when Clinton suborned perjury or Nixon tried to hide his scandals.

    Of course, one of those was quite more serious than the other…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  8. DrDaveT says:

    A digression…

    There were essentially three types that made up the infamous Spanish Inquisition:
    (1) Religious fanatics who really believed that they were saving the souls of Jews and Moslems by getting them to recant at any cost
    (2) Ambitious men who wished to become rich by confiscating the property of the condemned
    (3) Political men who enjoyed the power of being able to threaten anyone with accusations of heresy while being themselves immune

    (Plus, of course, various combinations of the above, in different proportions.)

    I see real parallels with the current GOP. You have the religious fanatics who don’t care what happens to the country as long as it doesn’t go humanist/atheist/gay; you have the plutocrats’ lickspittles like Ryan who just want to transfer money from the poor to the rich; and you have the Limbaughs and Bannons of the world who want to make and break and ride the anger to personal power.

    Wonderful.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  9. MBunge says:

    So, I’m reading this post and I keep thinking…

    “When is he going to mention it?”

    “Surely he’s going to mention it.”

    “He can’t possibly write something like this and not mention it, can he?”

    What I refer to, of course, is the all out political and legal assault waged by President Bill Clinton against Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Because while Clinton’s behavior may not have held a candle to Nixon’s, Trump’s doesn’t hold a candle to Bill’s. Random expressions of frustration cannot possibly be equated to a deliberate and coordinated effort to obstruct and undermine a legally authorized investigation.

    And while a reasonable person could disagree on the seriousness of Clinton’s behavior, how can anyone just pretend it didn’t happen? Or pretend Reagan and Iran-Contra didn’t happen? Or pretend that Barack Obama didn’t literally order law enforcement to NOT enforce the law as written and passed by Congress?

    I’m certainly not going to begrudge anyone who just wants to vent. I’m guilty of that all the time. Just don’t fool yourself that you’re doing anything else.

    Mike

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 18

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @MBunge:

    Random expressions of frustration […]

    Are you seriously claiming that the worst Trump is guilty of is “random expressions of frustration”?

    Setting that aside, you are clearly failing to distinguish between breaking the law, and denying the legitimacy of law as a concept. Nothing that Nixon, or Clinton, or Bush 2, or Obama did can be remotely construed as attempting to undermine the legitimacy of law as an institution. This is not true of Trump.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  11. Guarneri says:

    @MBunge:

    When is he going to mention it? Seriously? Trump Derangement Syndrome rules.

    And now comes the full out Clinton style destroy Donna Brazile campaign. But Clinton political capital reserves are running low. And it will go over great with the black vote.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  12. Mikey says:

    @MBunge:

    Because while Clinton’s behavior may not have held a candle to Nixon’s, Trump’s doesn’t hold a candle to Bill’s. Random expressions of frustration cannot possibly be equated to a deliberate and coordinated effort to obstruct and undermine a legally authorized investigation.

    The fact Trump has in fact engaged in such an effort, openly admitting to doing so, has apparently not reached whatever alternate reality you inhabit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  13. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @MBunge:

    Trump’s doesn’t hold a candle to Bill’s.

    Clinton lied about an extramarital affair. And he suffered consequences.
    Trump has colluded with the enemy, and stood by why that enemy has attacked us. Just yesterday Carter Page laid out one example of the quid pro quo…the Ukraine plank of the campaign platform. The Magnitsky Sanctions, which was the subject of the Donnie Jr. meeting with the Russian officialswas about, is another. Even if you discount the clear collusion (which Mr. Mueller won’t) every intelligence agency agrees that Russia attacked our election and continues to attack. Meanwhile Trump stands by and pretends it didn’t happen and isn’t happening. And he is not acting/imposing the new sanctions that Congress has passed. More evidence of quid pro quo. Then, of course, there is the obstruction of justice which any first year law student could prove.
    So maybe you sycophants equate a blow job with aiding and abetting the enemy…but no one who isn’t delusional does. I don’t even wonder if you are smart enough that you’ll ever be able to admit you were wrong when it is proven. It is clear you are not.
    It’s Mueller Time…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  14. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    @MBunge: I had a similar thought: is he only going to mention Trump’s words, or will he actually bring up an action that shows disregard for “the rule of law?” I was looking for examples like when Obama declared that Congress was in recess over Congress’ objections, when Obama rewrote Obamacare on the fly to change hard deadlines, when Obama illegally ordered subsidy payments to insurance companies without Congressional approval, when Obama got us involved in the Libyan civil war without following the War Powers act…

    But nope. Just words. Yeah, Trump said mean things about judges who ruled against his policies, but in each and every case he accepted the ruling and limited his actions to legally-acceptable ones.

    It’s been a hell of a bad couple of weeks for liberal narratives. The Texas mass shooting was by a psycho militant atheist who should have been denied buying guns because of his criminal past, but some government bureaucrat screwed up somewhere. Then he was chased down and taken down by two “good guys with guns,” including one who was not only an NRA member, but an NRA-certified gun instructor.

    Senator Rand Paul, who barely escaped last summer’s mass assassination attempt by a Bernie Sanders supporter, received life-threatening injuries from a mainstream liberal neighbor. Just remember that it’s The Right that is the real danger when it comes to politically-inspired violence.

    Doug mentioned that Tony Podesta “stepped down from his firm,” but kinda sorta skipped over the part where he actually dissolved the firm right after it came out that the investigation into Manafort was focusing on the time that Manafort was working hand-in-hand with the Podesta Group to shill for Putin puppets in the Ukraine. Said time being a couple of years before Manafort’s three months of working for Trump.

    No mention of Donna Brazile’s book coming out, where she spells out in great detail just how Hillary covertly bought the DNC (which had been bankrupted by Obama) and ran it all through the entire primary season, when it was supposed to be neutral towards all candidates.I guess the talking points answering them haven’t been finalized and issued yet — the first draft of “sad she’s spreading Russian propaganda” and “we need to move on from the past” failed miserably, and Brazile being both black and female gives her two victim trump cards to defend against attacks from the left.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

  15. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @Bob The Arqubusier:

    Senator Rand Paul, who barely escaped last summer’s mass assassination attempt by a Bernie Sanders supporter, received life-threatening injuries from a mainstream liberal neighbor.

    Conspiracy theorist…they were fighting over leaves.
    What a bunch of maroons….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: Yes, we should absolutely take as Gospel the words of the accused assailant’s lawyer, who has no other interest in the matter than getting the unvarnished truth out to the public.

    I guess part of your being so mind-bogglingly stupid is that you’re also incredibly gullible to any story that supports your incredibly shallow prejudices. You’ve certainly demonstrated that on countless occasions.

    And just what did I say that is any way incorrect? Paul was on the baseball field when the Bernie Bro attempted to wipe out a large number of Republican members of Congress. The accused assailant’s social media is filled with liberal positions. And Paul’s ribs weren’t just cracked; three of them were displaced fractures, which means he had three jagged pieces of bone floating free in his torso, where a single blow could have pierced his heart, his lungs, or other vital organs.

    Whether or not the alleged assailant’s political beliefs played a part in the attack has yet to be determined, but thanks for reminding everyone that his lawyer is saying it didn’t. Because there’s no one we can trust than an alleged criminal’s lawyer to tell the absolute truth, regardless of the consequences for the client he is being paid by.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  17. charon says:

    Carter Page testimony good account of Russian intelligence recruiting of assets like Page and Papadopoulos. Lots of discussion at B. Juice and LGM.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Mikey says:

    @charon: Seth Abramson’s Twitter is a gold mine of info on the Trump campaign’s coordination with the Russians:

    https://twitter.com/SethAbramson

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. grumpy realist says:

    Looks like the story now is that it was a “landscaping dispute.”

    That’s some pretty bitter leaf-raking, there….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. al-Ameda says:

    @Hal_10000:

    I thought it was very serious business when Clinton suborned perjury or Nixon tried to hide his scandals. Having a President turn the federal govt into his own private goon squad would be disastrous.

    This presidency – the Trump circle of family and friends – in some ways represents a ‘Gotti family comes to Washington’ meme.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. charon says:

    This presidency – the Trump circle if family and friends – in some ways represents a ‘Gotti family comes to Washington’ meme.

    Were the Gotti Family incompetent fvkkups too?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  22. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @Bob The Arqubusier:

    Yes, we should absolutely take as Gospel the words of the accused assailant’s lawyer, who has no other interest in the matter than getting the unvarnished truth out to the public.

    Well we can believe an officer of the court, or we can believe something you have made up of whole cloth. Until he is proven wrong, and Paul is conspicuously quiet on this, then I’ll choose the officer of the court.
    Given your record of outright falsehoods (every single comment) the choice is pretty clear.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @Mikey: \
    That twitter feed is pretty good.
    The Steele Dossier is getting more credible everyday…things being proved accurate…still nothing disproven.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  24. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: Even your own article spells out the alleged assailant’s politics:

    Neighbors said it was well known that the men had strongly divergent political views — Mr. Paul is a libertarian who identifies as a Republican; Mr. Boucher is a registered Democrat.

    And PJ Media got to his Facebook account before he could scrub it.

    Most of what he says only differs from your comments in that he’s not mouth-breathing stupid. The tone and sentiment is the same; he is just more articulate.

    “May Robert Mueller fry Trump’s gonads.”

    “Trump firing everyone who investigates him. TOTALITARIANISM,”

    He was also a big Bernie fan. So this is twice in a couple of months that Paul’s been attacked by a Bernie Bro. Last time, he escaped without injury. This time, not so much.

    But keep spreading the lie that liberals aren’t violent, that they only go after those who deserve it, and it’s the right wing that’s the real danger when it comes to political violence. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of starting a betting pool on the next act of leftist political violence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  25. charon says:

    @Mikey:

    Seth Abramson is pretty sensationalist and fast to jump to conclusions.

    He may often be right, but I have no idea what his batting average is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. charon says:

    @charon:

    This is another twitter take I saw recommended. (I am not vouching for it, just passing along.)

    https://twitter.com/StephanieCarvin

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Mikey says:

    @charon: The thing I like about Abramson is he doesn’t claim to have any “special knowledge” or inside sources or any of that–he’s just really good at correlating and analyzing publicly-available information, and his conclusions are correct most of the time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. charon says:
  29. Mikey says:

    @charon: I am increasingly convinced Carter Page is an idiot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. charon says:

    Here is a comment I found in a thread at LGM:

    “I once had a conversation with a Trump biographer about Gorka. We
    discussed how Trump is a magnet for sketchy characters and those of
    questionable competency. It’s not just that like attracts like, but also
    that Trump’s toxic combination of insecurity and ego make it impossible
    for him assess other people beyond how they fulfill his immediate
    needs.”

    The converse of this holds: Honorable people (and competent people) know better than to work for Trump, as he is surrounded by back-stabbers so they would be sure to get back-stabbed in that environment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. charon says:
  32. grumpy realist says:

    @charon: And Trump definitely surrounds himself with liars–Forbes has just come out with a hard-hitting article showing how much of a liar Ross has been about his net worth. (Very much like Trump, hmmm?)

    This has actually had an effect on Ross’s “negotiations” with the U.K. Basically, a lot of people don’t believe him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0