Trump Attacks the Rule of Law

The president leans on the Justice Department to keep a friend out of prison, prompting prosecutors to resign.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump gives a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

When Donald Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2017 — before the court even had a chance to sentence him for contempt — it reminded me of that adage of South American dictators: “For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law.”

Now we know just how far Trump is willing to take America down the path of a banana republic.

Turning tweets into action

Trump has for years disparaged the courts and law enforcement, claiming — without justification or proof — that judicial decisions unfavorable to his administration and the investigation into his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia were politically motivated.

As so often with Trump, this is projection. Like the thief who believes everyone, under the right circumstances, would steal, Trump has no respect for political norms or the rule of law and suspects anyone who claims they do is lying.

Freshly acquitted by his Republican allies in the Senate of abuse of power, despite withholding military aid from Ukraine in an attempt to coerce the country into announcing an investigation that could hurt his political rivals, Trump is turning tweets into action.

Prosecutors resign

Trump’s former confidante, and self-declared “dirty trickster”, Roger Stone has been convicted of seven felonies related to his attempts to mislead Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election: lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering. Federal prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years.

But then Trump tweeted his disapproval:

This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!

The Justice Department quickly overruled the recommendation of its own prosecutors, now telling the judge a nine-year prison sentence would be “excessive”.

All four career prosecutors on the case, two of whom had worked for Mueller, stepped down in protest.

A Justice Department official called the timing of the president’s tweet an “inconvenient coincidence”, but Trump himself later told reporters he had an “absolute right” to discuss Stone’s case with the Justice Department — only to reverse himself in the same news conference: “I didn’t speak to them.”

Not the first time

It wasn’t the first time the Justice Department changed a sentencing recommendation for a former Trump official. In the case of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, who has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his ties to Russia, prosecutors reduced their recommendation from six months in prison to mere probation.

Nor was this the first and only time Trump interfered in the judicial process. Last month, he removed Jessie Liu from her post as United States attorney for the District of Columbia, where she oversaw the prosecutions of Stone, Flynn and Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is also in prison. Trump announced he was nominating Liu to become undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, but then withdrew her nomination on Tuesday.

Nor is this the only way in which Trump is lashing out at perceived enemies. Trump has fired his ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland (who only got the job after donating $1 million to the president’s inauguration), and his director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, Alexander Vindman. Both were subpoenaed to testify before Congress and told the truth: that Trump cut military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to blackmail the country.

Trump also fired Vindman’s twin brother, who worked as a lawyer for the National Security Council but did not testify.

Learned his lesson

The most pitiful excuse for not removing Trump from office was offered by Maine senator Susan Collins, who said she believed Trump had “learned” his lesson from impeachment. (She later admitted that was “aspirational” on her part.)

Trump has learned his lesson all right. He now knows Republicans, even when given indisputable proof of his wrongdoing (which Collins, and other senators, did not deny), will do nothing to rein him in.

The banana republic is here.