Donald Trump and his attorney general seem headed for a confrontation, just as the president is declaring himself the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer” and handing out controversial pardons.
As the Washington Post reported, and others have confirmed, William Barr “has told people close to President Trump — both inside and outside the White House — that he is considering quitting over Trump’s tweets about Justice Department investigations”—that's according to three administration officials.
Whether the leak suggests that Barr is reaching his breaking point or is just pushing back against his boss, the press is playing this as a high-noon showdown. After the AG said Trump’s constant tweets about Justice Department cases was making it “impossible” for him to do his job, the president tweeted again, pushing for a new trial for his convicted pal Roger Stone. (Barr’s department argued the opposite in court.)
While Barr’s spokeswoman says he has “no plans” to quit, that was a weak denial--you don’t have plans until you do it—that didn’t address what he’s been telling people. Trump told reporters he does indeed make Barr’s job harder, but he needs to use social media because it gives him a “voice” that the press denies him. (The press gives him plenty of voice, of course, but it’s not unfiltered.)
Sources told the Post that “Trump considers highlighting what he sees as misconduct at the FBI and Justice Department as a good political message.” This dovetails with my theory that his overriding goal is to appear strong—whether it’s against DOJ or the Dems, intel agencies or Iran—and let others debate the fine print.
If you take a step back, the president has been beating up on a whole bunch of people whose job is to enforce the law (Mueller, Comey, McCabe, Sessions, Judge Amy Berman Jackson) and defending a number of folks who have been convicted of crimes (Stone, Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort). And that list grew longer with the latest pardons and commutations.
The New York Times called it a day when “the president asserted his dominance over a justice system that had long sought to insulate itself from political pressures.”
Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois who now calls himself a “Trump-o-crat,” is getting the most attention. The impeached ex-governor walked out of prison yesterday after the president commuted his 14-year sentence, with eight years served. Blago was once a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and Trump saw his wife pleading his case on Fox.
Blagojevich famously tried to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat after the 2008 election. “I’ve got this thing and it’s f***ing golden,” he declared in a wiretapped conversation. He wouldn’t give it away for “nothing.” Is there anything that strikes more at the heart of our system than that?
The president, criticized by some Illinois Republicans, tweeted that Blago “did not sell the Senate seat.” Yeah, because he got caught.
By the way, Blagojevich was also convicted of such offenses as shaking down the head of a children’s hospital for a $50,000 contribution in exchange for millions in funding for pediatric doctors to treat sick kids.
Trump also pardoned Michael Milken, the onetime junk bond king—I covered his indictment, brought by Rudy Giuliani—who did tremendous damage to the banking system. But he has turned into a major philanthropist, especially in cancer research. And he pardoned former New York police commissioner Bernie Kerik, a Giuliani associate, who was convicted of tax fraud and lying to White House officials.
It’s certainly fair game to criticize Trump for going outside the DOJ system and relying on friends and allies of those convicted. But the tone is out of proportion considering that other presidents have used (or abused) that constitutional power.
Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother Roger, as well as Marc Rich, a financier who, outrageously, had fled the country.
George H.W. Bush pardoned six of his Reagan administration colleagues caught up in the Iran-contra scandal, including ex-Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger as he was about to go to trial.
Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who leaked an avalanche of classified military secrets and endangered American lives, after seven years.
But those were largely treated as isolated incidents, while the press is linking the Trump pardons to a wholesale assault on the criminal justice system.