Trump’s Perverse Understanding of Justice

Trump has an autocrat's view of justice.

I would like to revisit something from waaaay back almost a week ago (before Woodward book excerpts, anonymous op/eds, the sentencing of a former Trump associate, SCOTUS hearings, and whatever else I am forgetting about at that moment).  That something is a pair of tweets from Trump himself:

Doug Mataconis discussed these tweets in the context of Trump’s general lack of respect for the rule of law last week.

While I agree with Doug that Trump shows an alarming disrespect for the rule of law (and Doug’s post details additional evidence to this fact), the more I think about these tweets the worse I realize them to be.  Indeed, I think that because they have been so buried in an avalanche of news that they have not gotten adequate attention.  In normal times this kind of public statement by the president would have been a major scandal.

No doubt, part of the lack of attention (apart from the sheer volume of things to keep track of here) is that these are tweets, and as some argue, tweets should be ignored.  I ask, however:  if Trump had gone to a podium and said to the public in audible words what he said in written tweets, would it have been as ignored? Perhaps–and maybe because of all that happens on a daily basis, and maybe because to some degree we simply do not take this man seriously, this would be ignored in any form, but I wonder.  Certainly if any other president had actively suggested that the Attorney general should hold off on prosecuting co-partisans because an election was on the horizon, then it would have been a scandal (and rightly so). What if we had secret recordings of Trump chastising Sessions in this way, would that not be a huge story?  But, because they are crazy tweets in a sea of crazy tweets, they just don’t matter?

Consider what he is saying here:  that the Justice Department should use its power to protect two Republican members of Congress because of the political implications for the president’s party.  He further obfuscates the truth as well as heightening the political implications of the statement by inferring that this is all just an Obama-era political attack.  Never mind that both indictments are pretty strong and that at least some of the alleged crimes took place during the Trump administration.  It isn’t as if these charges are anything other than solid.  Duncan Hunter, for example, has admitted some level of wrongdoing by his campaign, but he has thrown his wife under the bus since she ran the finances.

In regards to Chris Collins, Doug noted the following in his post on this subject:

In the Collins case particularly, Trump’s criticism is utterly absurd. In that case, it’s clear that, while Collins and his involvement in a controversial pharmaceutical company may have been under investigation prior to the time that Donald Trump took office, the acts that led to the charges against him all took place after Trump took office and after Trump’s own appointees were in office. In fact, the indictment in the Collins case alleges that the Congressman was exchanging text messages with his son about the failure of the key drug being developed by this company while standing on the South Lawn of the White House during last year’s Congressional Barbeque at the White House. There is even video available in which Collins can be seen furiously tapping away on his phone while standing in a crowd of other Members of Congress and their families. As it turned out, those messages were to his son and were illegally informing him of the fact that the drug had failed its latest Food and Drug Administration trial, a fact that would lead the FDA to refuse to certify the drug for use and would obviously cause the value of the company’s stock to crash. In response to the news received from his father, the younger Collins immediately sold the vast majority of his shares. Thus, it was because of illegal acts committed while Trump was President and Trump’s appointees were in charge of the Justice Department that Collins was indicted, to begin with.

There is no evidence that these indictments are anything other than what they appear to be: very serious charges of corruption that are very likely to lead to convictions. There is no hint of political motivation of which I am aware.

But to Trump what matters is that theses are two early supporters of his (indeed, if memory serves, the first two members of Congress to do so) as well as co-partisans.

To steal something that Benjamin Wittes raised on this week’s Rational Security podcast:  in Plato’s Republic a major part of the dialog is focused on the subject of “what is justice?”  One of the interlocutors, Polemarchus, suggested that “justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies” (spoiler: that is the wrong answer). It is not insignificant to the current discussion that Socrates notes “I believe that Periander or Perdiccas or Xerxes or Ismenias the Theban, or some other rich and mighty man, who had a great opinion of his own power, was the first to say that justice is ‘doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.'” (emphasis mine).

And yet, Trump thinks that the purpose of the DoJ and the AG is to help his friends and punish his enemies.  Other tweets along these lines:

In each case he is asserting either that the AG’s job is to protect the president and his interests, or he think that the AG’s job is to go after his political enemies.

Neither of these positions is what one would expect from a democrat (note the small “d”).  These are the inclinations, on full public display, of a autocrat-wannbe who thinks “l’état, c’est moi” (basically:  “I am the state”).

Supporters need to understand what they are supporting.

I will conclude with the following: there are two specific issues that I think this twitter behavior connects to.

First, if Trump is willing to say in public that Sessions should be going light on Republican friends, then it is more than reasonable to take very seriously the charge that Trump asked Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn in private.

Second, it Trump does think that the job of the AG is to serve him personally, it lends substantial credibility that he did ask Comey for his loyalty.

I would note that this further suggests that, as Trump himself admitted in an interview with Lester Holt, that he fired Comey over the Russia investigation.

So, Trump asked for loyalty from Comey, didn’t get it, so fired Comey because a disloyal person overseeing the Russia investigation was a threat.  His upset over Sessions’ recusal fits the pattern as well.

Really, Trump’s own public behavior lends substantial credence to the charge of obstruction of justice.

If one has been paying attention to all of this, none of this is particularly revelatory. But I think it still bears ongoing focus.  Again:  the President of United States rebuked the Attorney General, in public, for prosecuting co-partisans because it hampers the chances that their party will win those seats.  He further, regularly, asserts that lack of personal fealty of the AG to him as president is a problem.

This is not acceptable (or, at least, shouldn’t be).

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    Great, thoughtful analysis all the way around Steven.

    He further, regularly, asserts that lack of personal fealty of the AG to him as president is a problem.

    This is not acceptable (or, at least, shouldn’t be).

    100%. It also is worth saying that — while I disagree with most things he’s done from a policy perspective — Sessions has otherwise faithfully enacted almost all of Trump’s policy requests/positions (while dealing with these personal attacks). It says a lot about Trump that the majority of Sessions’ actions don’t actually appear to matter.

    But you know, these are again “features” for Trump supporters.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    I can’t find it again, but somebody tweeted to the effect that:
    Trump has turned out to be just what he appeared to be. His associates have turned out to be just what they appeared to be. The only surprise is that it’s taking so long for everyone to see it

    @mattbernius: I think Jeffy Jeff will continue to be a loyal Trumpskyite right up to the edge of committing obstruction. Which in a way is comforting in that it shows Jeffy Jeff doesn’t see Trump being successful at becoming an autarch. Of course he could be wrong.

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  3. Mikey says:

    Not much more to say after such a well-written piece.

    I’ll just add another data point: according to Bob Woodward in his new book “Fear,” when Trump’s now-former adviser Gary Cohn first came to Trump wishing to resign, Trump’s immediate response was “this is treason!”

    The implications of that are pretty grim.

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  4. MBunge says:

    Supporters need to understand what they are supporting.

    Just one point. I think this is the latest in a series of posts from you that boil down to “Well, what about THIS, Trump Supporter? But what about THIS? Or THIS?” Is the purpose of these posts to get people to change their mind about Donald Trump? Because if it is, you are wasting your time because not only are your posts not working, it is intellectually impossible for them to work.

    It is impossible for them to work because they are not the arguments one equal makes to another. They are the arguments of a supposed superior trying to browbeat a supposed inferior back into line. As such, they are so stupidly and unbelievably one-sided that the intended targets simply disregard them without a thought.

    At the risk of indulging in mind-reading, let me explain to you what any Trump supporter will think after reading this post: “Rule of law? There’s a cabal of un-elected bureaucrats working to subvert and contradict the authority and direction of the legally elected President of the United States, and this idiot thinks Trump’s tweets are a threat to the rule of law?”

    There’s a bunch of other examples I could have used but I think that one should suffice. You write these posts as though you are sure the problem is other people not understanding things but it is your comprehension that is severely deficient. Donald Trump is not the problem. Donald Trump is the result of the problem. I’m not saying that. Trump supporters aren’t saying that. BARACK OBAMA IS SAYING THAT.

    “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”

    Now, I might disagree with President Obama on exactly what’s causing all this but we certainly agree that isn’t Donald Trump. Any attempt to discuss Donald Trump that doesn’t start with that plain and simple truth is ultimately futile as anything other than salve for one’s butt hurt.

    Or to put it another way…when you talk to people like they’re dumb, it usually means you’re actually the stupid one. Just something to think about before that next post.

    Mike

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  5. Mister Bluster says:

    Or to put it another way…when you talk to people like they’re dumb, it usually means you’re actually the stupid one.

    Change your underwear Bungles. You just crapped in your pants.

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  6. @MBunge: Trust me, I do not expect you to change your mind.

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  7. grumpy realist says:

    @MBunge: We all know based on your previous comments that you would be perfectly happy living in a system ruled by an autocrat. Because for you, The King is the ne plus ultra, the head honcho who gets to abuse the system for his own gain.

    You’d love living in a banana republic. The fact that this is not what the United States of America was set up to be is totally brushed aside. The fact that this is by no means justice and the equal application of law is something you don’t care about.

    If we comment back to you as if you are a jerk, it’s because you’re certainly acting as if you’re nothing more than the guardsman of a caudillo.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    @MBunge:

    “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.”

    Now, I might disagree with President Obama on exactly what’s causing all this but we certainly agree that isn’t Donald Trump. Any attempt to discuss Donald Trump that doesn’t start with that plain and simple truth is ultimately futile as anything other than salve for one’s butt hurt

    Bung-e, you may want to avoid butt comments.

    Some of the problems with the Republican Party today predate Donald Trump. Others are caused by Donald Trump. Others predate Donald Trump but are made much worse by Donald Trump.

    Is it really that hard to understand?

    Its like when Pruitt was the head of the EPA — terrible policies, AND amazingly, bizarrely corrupt. It’s not an exclusive, one and only one problem there.

    Degrading the rule of law is coming directly from Donald Trump, in a way that wasn’t really there before. There were hints of it, and every President has strayed a little here and there (humans are human), but Donald Trump is the first in my lifetime to show contempt for the rule of law.

    Does this come from the same culture that makes the modern Republican Party violate all norms and take any power that they legally can take, pushing the boundaries of legality? Yes, but this is even worse.

    So, stop acting all bung-hurt and try to think a little bit.

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  9. Joe says:

    I would commend to anyone this Vox article which breaks down Trump’s view of the role of the AG, fully consistent with Steven’s analysis here. As a further basis, however, they also cite the following NYT article about Trump reflecting on what he considered Eric Holder’s qualities as an AG.

    Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the I.R.S. scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.

    It’s not just that Trump wants Sessions to do this for him. He thinks that what AGs are supposed to do. His thinking – such as it is – is an open book. Anyone can read it.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    This all has it’s roots in trump’s wealth. A consequence free childhood, a consequence free adulthood, because no matter what he did he had more than enough money to buy his way out of it. This is the result of a system that rewards the passing down of wealth from one generation to another. Rewards wealth with more wealth. Entrenches wealth in the hands of the few. There are 3 kinds of laws in this country: One kind for the poor who if they fuck up they are just plain screwed, another kind for the middle class who if they screw up in a moderate fashion can escape with moderate penalties but are just as screwed for anything more, a third type of law for the well to do who can pretty much afford a good lawyer who will get them a murder conviction reduced to involuntary manslaughter.

    The uber rich? The Adelsons, the Kochs, the Friess’? There is no law that applies to them.

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  11. CSK says:

    @Mikey:

    To Trump, disloyalty, or perceived disloyalty, to him is treason. That’s the only understanding his has of the word. It would be pointless to explain to him what treason means. He wouldn’t listen, and even if he did, he wouldn’t get it.

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  12. Kathy says:

    One of the interlocutors, Polemarchus, suggested that “justice is the art which gives good to friends and evil to enemies”

    I don’t think El Cheeto’s conception of justice is that sophisticated. Rather, justice to him means doing his bidding.

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  13. An Interested Party says:

    Change your underwear Bungles. You just crapped in your pants.

    With the way he feels about Trump? He probably did something else in his pants…this sycophantic behavior is disgusting…

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  14. Bruce Henry says:

    Bunge’s position is that hurting Trump’s supporters’ feelings by making them feel stupid is futile, even counter-productive.

    Well, we’re in a pickle, then, because they ARE stupid, apparently, and asking “what about THIS? Or THIS?” is pretty much all anyone can do. What are we supposed to do, cajole these dumbasses into reality? How can that be done?

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  15. @Bruce Henry: To be honest, I can never fully understand what his point is. And when I ask direct questions, I get crickets.

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  16. Kingdaddy says:

    I had exactly the same reaction as you did. Any president who says what he said, through any medium, is violating his oath of office. Period. Why we’re talking about the identity of an op-ed writer, instead of addressing the huge Constitutional breach right in front of us, is beyond me.

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  17. @Kingdaddy: We live in stunning, alarming times.

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I think the laws apply to them, the difference is in the consequences of what laws they normally break and how those consequences affect them.

    Case in Point: Long time ago, I worked for a corporation that was purchased outright by a billionaire for cash–about $750 million in 1980s dollars. It happened that he was also a major GOP bundler/fundraiser in my state. Turns out he also falsified records of his activities and was eventually found guilty of campaign finance violations for which he was fined IIRC, $100,000–which he paid with a personal check on the day of the sentencing.

    That event was simply the tip of the iceberg. Among other things, he also admitted to managers that he fired that he knew that he was violating the law by firing them, but also knew that he could keep them tied up in court until they ran out of money to litigate against him. There are consequences, even for the uber rich; the difference is that the consequences for them are inconsequential.

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  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Turns out he also falsified records of his activities and was eventually found guilty of campaign finance violations for which he was fined IIRC, $100,000–which he paid with a personal check on the day of the sentencing.

    You think that was a consequence? How much did he profit from his lawbreaking? For them, this is just the cost of doing business. If, and that’s a BIG if, they get caught.

    Among other things, he also admitted to managers that he fired that he knew that he was violating the law by firing them, but also knew that he could keep them tied up in court until they ran out of money to litigate against him.

    Just the cost of doing business. They have lawyers on retainer just for this kind of stuff. It’s couch change to these assholes.

    Leona Helmsley supposedly went to prison for tax evasion. Martha Stewart supposedly went to prison for insider trading. The reality is they went to prison for pissing off the prosecutor. For every LH or MS there are a thousand more who buy their way out of it thru high priced lawyers who convince prosecutors that they can drag the case out forever. OR. They could accept an Alford plea with a “substantial financial penalty”. A substantial financial penalty that they will make back inside of 2 months.

    Do you really think Chris Collins is going to prison for insider trading? No, he will stand before a judge, looking downtrodden and sorrowful, say all the right words, plead guilty. His lawyer will stand before the judge and explain how Collins’ life has been turned upside down by this, that he has lost his job, how his wife and children have suffered and that he didn’t really mean to do it, he just kind of panicked. The judge will say how he must pay a price for this outrageous betrayal of his constituents and that he must pay a price for his wrongdoing:

    $1.5 million dollar fine, 2 years SIS with 1 year probation.

    And Collins will walk out of the courtroom with a hangdog look on his face speaking of how he’s just glad this terrible time in his life is over and he just wants to put it all behind him. Get into the backseat of his limo and crack a great big smile that he just can’t stop. I’ll bet he won’t even have to go see his probation officer.

    And he’s not even a pimple on Sheldon Adelsons ass.

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  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “You think that was a consequence? How much did he profit from his lawbreaking? For them, this is just the cost of doing business. If, and that’s a BIG if, they get caught.”

    No, I don’t. But the United States Congress does. I will refer back to the close of my post now.

    There are consequences, even for the uber rich; the difference is that the consequences for them are inconsequential.

    ETA: Martha Stewart went to prison for lying to Federal law enforcement agents. And IIRC did not make financial restitution. I count that as a double win–remember, she went to Club Fed, not Rahway or Walla Walla and kept the money. Ka-CHING!

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