The rule of law is dead
Trump's post-impeachment campaign to assert unlimited power
We are watching the rule of law collapse in real time.
It is no surprise that President Trump on Tuesday meddled in the federal case against his friend Roger Stone — who is convicted of sabotaging an investigation against Trump himself — declaring that a nine-year sentencing recommendation by Department of Justice lawyers was "very unfair" and adding that he "cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!"
It is no surprise that the Department of Justice — led by Trump's unendingly faithful servant, Attorney General William Barr — responded to Trump's tweet by reversing itself, instead recommending that Stone serve only an "unspecified" amount of time in prison.
And it is no surprise that these events occurred in an atmosphere of Trumpian house cleaning. There were reports that Jessie Liu, a former prosecutor on the Stone case, had her nomination withdrawn for a job at the Treasury Department. The president on Tuesday also suggested that the military conduct an inquiry against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose only apparent crime is telling Congress the truth about what he witnessed during the Ukraine scandal. At the same time, the White House reportedly planned to withdraw its nomination of Elaine McCusker to be the Pentagon's comptroller — because McCusker resisted the president's efforts to delay military aid to Ukraine, the act that started the scandal. Add Tuesday's events to those of last Friday, when Vindman and his brother were fired, along with Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU, and America has experienced two "Saturday Night Massacres" within a week.
The message to the federal workforce is clear: Mess with the president or his friends, and your career will suffer. Trump is like a bizarro world version of Diogenes: Instead of a ceaseless search to find the last honest man, he instead is doing everything he can to expel all traces of integrity and honesty from American governance.
Right now, he is succeeding.
If there is one small bit of surprise and even consolation in Trump's post-impeachment campaign to assert unlimited power, it is that integrity still exists in corners of the executive branch: All four federal prosecutors working on Stone's case withdrew on Tuesday rather than serve the president's wishes. But such consolations — as with Sen. Mitt Romney's (R-Utah) vote to impeach the president — are also fleeting, because they ultimately mean so little. The president will get what he wants anyway.
There will be more of this kind of stuff. NBC on Tuesday night reported that Barr is personally consolidating control of federal legal matters of interest to the president. And Trump on Tuesday night publicly assailed the judge handling Stone's case. We are a very long way from the time when then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch recused herself from Hillary Clinton's email case after she chatted with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac. The old wisdom was that the appearance of a conflict of interest is the same as an actual conflict. The new wisdom — if it can be called that — is to get away with as much as you possibly can.
Trump is generally corrupt, but his attempts to bend the Department of Justice to his will and self-interest are particularly troubling, and will probably do damage that lingers long after he leaves office. Justice — the rule of law — has always been a flawed and fragile concept in America, but it is also one of the foundations on which our democracy rests. "All men are created equal" is a statement of how we are to be treated by the law. Now the president orchestrates special treatment for himself and his cronies and urges punishment for his enemies. Increasingly, the Department of Justice seems willing to go along. In doing so, it loses whatever legitimacy and reputation for fairness it might have had. Right and wrong, legal and illegal are less important than they were a few years ago — what matters most is who has the power, and the will to use it.
This was foreseeable. Sen. Susan Collins' (R-Maine) limp protestations notwithstanding, we knew that Trump would use his unearned impeachment acquittal as license to disregard the last remaining restraints on his power. But it was easily predicted even before he became president that Trump was a creature of grievance, a man who would almost certainly abuse and misuse the powers of office in settling scores both real and imagined. This is who Trump is. He became president anyway.
"We told you so," is an insufficient response to this moment. American democracy hangs in the balance. Can anything be done?
Maybe not. Maybe it is too late. Trump was impeached for trying to cheat the election; it seems likely he will continue such attempts, in which case the 2020 election might already be lost. But Trump's opponents must keep trying anyway. They must keep voting, keep donating, keep protesting, keep writing against this president until all is finally lost. Romney showed his integrity last week. So did the federal prosecutors who quit the Stone case on Tuesday. Now the rest of us must do the same.
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