Do you think Donald Trump is going to take this lying down?
Almost from his first moments in office, President Trump and his allies have launched a fierce assault on the Department of Justice. Those attacks have been designed to insulate his presidency from a widening scandal, but with new revelations about his son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian attorney bringing the threat of criminal charges into the president’s own family, what we have seen to date from the president may be only the beginning of an unprecedented campaign to weaken one of his own Cabinet agencies.
President Trump and his allies have launched a two-pronged assault on the agency: first by trying to co-opt it from within, and when that seemed to fail, subverting it from the outside. It’s doubtful Trump cares much about the ramifications for DOJ itself or the effects a weakened department would have on the rule of law. But a collapse in the department’s institutional credibility would come at a severe cost to the country.
The Justice Department holds a unique place in the president’s Cabinet. Thanks to post-Watergate reforms and the development of strong institutional norms that place a premium on independence, DOJ is supposed to makes its own calls about who to investigate or prosecute, free from presidential interference.
Trump, however, has treated the department like his own personal fiefdom, answerable to him in the same way he expected subordinates in his business empire to operate. He demanded loyalty from the FBI director, Jim Comey, and asked him to back off an investigation into former national security adviser Mike Flynn. He erupted when Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed longstanding rules and recused himself from the probe. When the investigation continued, he asked the director of national intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to intervene with the FBI—virtually the same request Richard Nixon made in his famous “smoking gun” tape. Each of these actions was a major breach of protocol, and when none of them worked, Trump fired Comey.
Since the Comey firing and the subsequent appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump has turned to subversion to weaken the Justice Department. He has publicly questioned whether Mueller is fair—repeatedly calling his investigation a witch hunt and casting doubt on his impartiality because he has hired prosecutors who have previously contributed to Democrats. His attorney Jay Sekulow has gone even further, making far-fetched and misleading claims that Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe should recuse himself because of conflicts of interest and arguing that Comey broke the law in publicly disclosing memos documenting his conversations with the president, an argument Trump himself echoed on Monday. (“Fox & Friends,” which aired the false accusation against Comey, issued a correction—but the president did not.)
Attacking investigations as politically motivated is a time-worn tactic by political figures under scrutiny. But such attacks are different when they are made personally by the head of the executive branch, who holds the unique ability to hire and fire senior DOJ officials. Trump clearly understands this. After sacking Comey, he has now publicly flirted with the possibility of doing the same to Mueller. As his aides told the New York Times, he hoped that merely floating the idea of firing the special counsel would make him more malleable and increase the chances that he clears the president.
Trump’s attacks are also more likely to cause long-term lasting damage to the Justice Department’s credibility because of the position he commands in today’s polarized political and media environment. Between Fox News, Breitbart, One America News Network and a host of similar right-wing outlets, every utterance from Trump is echoed by a chorus of voices who hold sway over an ever-increasing portion of the population. A recent Survey Monkey poll found that 33 percent of Republicans get their news only from Fox, and 89 percent of Republicans trust the president more than they do CNN.
Over the years, the Republican Party has perfected a formula of using the right-wing media to wage similar campaigns against the credibility of climate-change scientists, academia, government experts and other elite institutions whose independent voices challenge conservative orthodoxy. Those campaigns have worked. For example, the Pew Research Center found last month that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now say that universities have a negative effect on the country. The GOP built a Death Star to destroy the news media, then turned it on other targets. Trump is now pointing it squarely at the Justice Department.
If Trump succeeds in impairing either the independence or the credibility of the Justice Department, the consequences could be irreversible. DOJ depends on the confidence of the public to execute its mission. It needs witnesses to cooperate with its investigations, whistleblowers to have faith it will listen to their concerns and juries to believe its prosecutors are telling the truth. If Trump is able to turn roughly a third of the country’s population against it – as conservatives have with other once-respected institutions – its ability to execute this mission will suffer dramatically.
Thanks to last year’s presidential campaign, the Justice Department began 2017 in its most vulnerable position in years. Both Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch bear responsibility for mistakes in their handling of the Clinton investigation, Lynch through her tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton and subsequent ham-handed attempts at recusal and Comey through his breach of longstanding DOJ rules to publicly discuss the case. They cracked the door Trump is now barging through, but it is up to the rest of us to close it firmly.
As the Russia investigation draws closer to Trump, his family, and his associates, his assault on the Justice Department is only likely to increase. If its mission is to be saved, it will be because voices from both parties who respect the rule of law stand up for it.