NHL Hall of Fame center Wayne Gretzky famously spoke of skating, not to where the puck is, but where the puck is going.
Many Republicans are worried that a Trump nomination will wreck American conservatism in 2016. We – Americans of all political inclinations – should be worried that a Trump presidency will wreck American government, beyond a 2016-2020 term, by weakening faith in our institutions.
For example, you could be a zealous privacy/encryption advocate. And yet, as of right now, there is a FBI Director on record as saying that the FBI, while pursuing its mission, should not ultimately be the one determining the appropriate balance between privacy-security (though neither does he believe a corporation that sells stuff should) – and that a legitimate public debate is, in the broader context, appropriate. Same guy who as a deputy under the Ashcroft DOJ threatened to resign, as did then-FBI Director Mueller, during the Bush Administration’s earlier go-arounds re-authorizing the NSA Prism program brought to light by Ed Snowden. Bush gave ground.
Say what you will, your USG is not a monolithic entity of robotic bureaucrats. There may be folks who disagree with you on issues, whether due to personal ideology, or job role, but they are not inherently unreasonable, even when under immense political pressure from elected leaders.
Now, imagine if a Trump, who proposes things that constitutional scholars of all political inclinations pan as unconstitutional, were president, and simply said, ok “You’re fired” and put into the Executive Branch a cabal of Yes Men.
Essentially, think of Nixon, but probably worse. Much worse.
Watergate and Nixon era intelligence scandals broke a lot of trust the American people had in its government, that today’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies still pay a price in trying to overcome – e.g. the broad distrust between Academia and law enforcement that has roots in historical enmities, and has never recovered in a way that the relationship between the public and the Vietnam era US military has.
The way the President of the United States intends to wield the instruments of Executive Power can diminish those instruments standing with the American people for years to come, and long after those Presidents are gone – and to the detriment of American society.
We’ve not, it seems, gone over a tipping point, in which the breach becomes too wide to mend, but, given the tenor of a Trump candidacy, its disdain for rule of law, and the demeanor of Trump himself, where this puck is heading toward is scary indeed.
“The next day, as terrorist bombs killed more than 200 commuters on rail lines in Madrid, the White House approved the executive order without any signature from the Justice Department certifying its legality. Comey responded by drafting his letter of resignation, effective the next day, March 12.
“I couldn’t stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis,” he said. “I just simply couldn’t stay.” Comey testified he was going to be joined in a mass resignation by some of the nation’s top law enforcement officers: Ashcroft, Mueller, Ayres and Comey’s own chief of staff.
Ayres persuaded Comey to delay his resignation, Comey testified. “Mr. Ashcroft’s chief of staff asked me something that meant a great deal to him, and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me,” he said.
The threat became moot after an Oval Office meeting March 12 with Bush, Comey said. After meeting separately with Comey and Mueller, Bush gave his support to making changes in the program, Comey testified.
“Reflecting the context of this heart-breaking case, I hope folks will take a deep breath and stop saying the world is ending, but instead use that breath to talk to each other. Although this case is about the innocents attacked in San Bernardino, it does highlight that we have awesome new technology that creates a serious tension between two values we all treasure: privacy and safety. That tension should not be resolved by corporations that sell stuff for a living. It also should not be resolved by the FBI, which investigates for a living. It should be resolved by the American people deciding how we want to govern ourselves in a world we have never seen before. We shouldn’t drift to a place—or be pushed to a place by the loudest voices—because finding the right place, the right balance, will matter to every American for a very long time.”
July 6, 2016
“It was just weeks after he joined Bridgewater—whose corporate culture of high-achieving intellectuals resembles a moneyed management cult that shares more in common with the 1970s personal-improvement fad est than it does with a typical Wall Street firm—that Comey was cornered by a similarly new 25-year-old employee. The junior associate interrogated the former Justice Department official on a seemingly illogical stance that Comey had taken in an earlier meeting. “My initial reaction was ‘What? You, kid, are asking me that question?’ … I was deputy attorney general of the United States; I was general counsel of a huge, huge company. No 25-year-old is going to ask me about my logic,” he recalled. “Then I realized ‘I’m at Bridgewater.’”
Comey said that, even though he was excited to embrace the new way of thinking, it took him at least three months to settle in with Bridgewater’s culture. “I finally relaxed and untied the knot in my stomach that would instantly appear when someone questioned me,” he recalled.
“Bridgewater’s a hard place. … It’s a place filled with really smart people who are always going to tell you the truth, and that’s hard.”
With his son in the crosshairs of federal investigators, you can bet on it.
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 coopt 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.
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.