Ever since Senate Republicans acquitted him in his impeachment trial, President Donald Trump seems to feel free to do anything he wants, with no regard for the Constitution or decades of precedent.
The latest example is his Twitter tantrum over the sentence federal prosecutors recommended for his longtime friend and political fixer, Roger Stone, followed quickly by Justice Department officials’ intervening to seek a shorter sentence for Stone.
Anyone who questions how unusual these events were should look at the fallout: All four of the prosecutors who had made the original recommendation withdrew from the case, and one resigned from the Justice Department.
Historically, the Justice Department has guarded its independence as the protector of the Constitution’s rule of law and the principle that no one, not even a high government official, is above the law. That’s one of the bedrock principles that has made our democracy what it is — until the era of Trump, anyway.
Justice Department spokesmen hurried to deny that the changed recommendation was in response to Trump, but Trump crowed that he has the “absolute right” to order the department around and he praised Attorney General William Barr for “taking charge” of the case. Earlier, he had tweeted that the recommended sentence was “horrible and very unfair” and a “miscarriage of justice!” (A federal jury convicted Stone of obstructing justice, lying to Congress and threatening a witness with bodily harm, and the seven-to-nine year recommendation was pretty standard.)
Of course, Trump has never seemed to have much knowledge of or interest in the Constitution. He’s operated as if he were still running a family-owned real estate empire or performing on a reality TV show. Those who believed he’d grow into the job and listen to wise counsel have been proved woefully wrong.
Instead, he’s driven most of the wiser heads out of the White House, replacing them with those willing to say what he wants to hear.
He acts as president not of the whole country, but of those who agree with him, and he uses his office to reward friends and punish his perceived enemies. He’s already undermined the military justice system, and now he’s trying to overrule civilian courts in favor of his cronies.
It’s especially troubling that Attorney General William Barr, the man charged with protecting the Justice Department’s integrity, seems to be complicit in Trump’s behavior.
Unfortunately, one of the most important checks on the president’s power, the legislative branch, already has failed to do its job. Republicans in the Senate valued political expediency over the integrity of our constitutional system.
Far from learning a lesson, as some Republican senators naively predicted, or being chastened by impeachment, Trump seems to feel free from any restraints. He wasted no time in taking retribution against those such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman who followed the law and their sense of duty in testifying against him.
By Thursday afternoon, Barr was saying that Trump did not tell him what to do in Stone’s case, but that Trump’s tweets make it impossible for him to do his job. His protests were so uncharacteristic as to be suspicious. They would be more credible if Barr hadn’t repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to use his position to further Trump’s political and personal interests.
Trump seems to believe that he is all powerful, and that the rule of law does not apply to him. If the Justice Department won’t stand up to him, who will?