I wrote a column two weeks before the 2016 electon entitled "Donald Trump Is An Existential Threat To American Democracy." I not only stand by that claim; I will double down on it. We are well on our way towards autocracy. Donald Trump has launched an unrelenting assault on the institutions that support our democracy, and his fellow Republicans are either looking the other way or they are rooting for democracy's demise. Mike Lee, a Republican Senator from Utah, let the cat out of the bag. He, at least, would not mind seeing our democracy die.
Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2020
The Justice Department is part of the Executive Branch of government and is under the control of the President--to an extent. The President can set broad policy for the Department and can pick, with the consent of Congress, the person he wants to lead the Department. But it was never intended for him to be able to use the Justice Department as tool to help his political allies escape punishment for their crimes or as a hammer to wield against his political adversaries. President Trump tried to use his influence via the Justice Department to try to reduce the sentencing guidelines for Roger Stone after Stone was convicted of obstruction of justice and witness tampering. This set off alarm bells, prompting Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, to write:
Among the Founding Fathers’ chief goals was to do away with a government where the king was above the law and had absolute power over the lives of his subjects. In our system, the President, like every other citizen, is meant to be subject to the law. The Founding Fathers were explicit about that intention when they debated the shape the new government they were creating would take. And that quintessentially American view that no man is above the law has been the case up until the presidency of Donald Trump.
The rule-of-law approach to government means not only that a President must himself be accountable, but also that he cannot be permitted to create special rules that he can use to benefit his friends or punish his enemies. . . .
If the President can get special treatment for himself or for those around him, we no longer have a system people can have confidence in. They will know that it’s rigged. A President who controls prosecutions in this manner has assumed the powers of a monarch or a dictator, not those given to the duly elected representative of the people.
Since his acquittal from the impeachment charges brought against him by the House, Trump has shown a dangerous tendency to retaliate against those he believes have wronged him. If he can corrupt the criminal justice system for the benefit of his friends, there is no reason he cannot also use it to retaliate against those he views as enemies. There is nothing that prevents him from “locking her up,” whether a crime has been committed or not, in a system that responds to his demands.
If a President can interfere in the way professional prosecutors conduct prosecutions, enforcing allegiance to him and stifling dissent, we no longer have a system of justice. No one is safe. Ultimately, a President could prosecute people he wants to jail and prevent prosecutions or lengthy sentences for his allies. If a President can lay claim to these expansive powers with a compliant attorney general at his side, then that President, who is fully above the law, has reduced our democracy to a sham. (Emphasis added)
Unfortunately, this was only the first of many incidents where Trump has used William Barr as his own personal lawyer and the Justice Department as his own law firm to carry out his personal agenda. Bess Levin writes in Vanity Fair:
Since Donald Trump assumed the office of the president, he has made it clear that he believes the Department of Justice works not for the American people but for him personally, and not as an ethical personal lawyer but the kind willing to commit perjury and tamper with witnesses. While Jeff Sessions refused to intervene in the Russia investigation, much to Trump’s impotent rage, in his successor, the president has found an attorney general willing not just to do his dirty work but to do it completely out in the open and without a scintilla of shame. Since taking over the Justice Department in 2019, William Barr has claimed the Mueller report exonerated his boss when it expressly did not; told Congress it’s not a crime for POTUS to demand staffers lie to federal investigators; urged the Supreme Court to help keep Trump’s tax returns under lock and key; instructed the former acting director of National Intelligence not to send an “urgent” whistleblower report to lawmakers concerning the president’s attempt to extort Ukraine; interceded to change the sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump pal Roger Stone; and suggested Trump wasn’t committing a felony when he instructed his supporters to vote twice in the upcoming election. All of which was apparently a prelude to Barr’s most recent maneuver: having the Justice Department try to shield Trump from a defamation lawsuit.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but for the sake of brevity I will not discuss in detail Trump's use of the Justice Department under Barr to investigate those who had investigated him over Russiagate. Nor will I delve into the Justice Department's investigation into the unmasking "scandal" which Trump made a big stink about, but which turned out to be a nothingburger. I will, however, suggest you read my article on the defamation lawsuit referred to at the end of the previous paragraph. Trump is trying to stick the taxpayer with the legal bills for his defense in a defamation case that has arisen from a rape he is alleged to have committed in the mid-1990s. And if Trump loses the defamation case (which would imply that Trump had raped the plaintiff), then it is we, the taxpayers who will be stuck with paying Trump's fine.
When Vance wrote the above passage she was only speculating that Trump could use the Justice Department to go after his political enemies. But Trump has taken this possibility out of the realm of theoretical speculation by DEMANDING that they do just that.
Where are all of the arrests? Can you imagine if the roles were reversed? Long term sentences would have started two years ago. Shameful! https://t.co/w2s8LdiRu0
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
Wow!!! NOW DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST OF ALL POLITICAL SCANDALS (IN HISTORY)!!! BIDEN, OBAMA AND CROOKED HILLARY LED THIS TREASONOUS PLOT!!! BIDEN SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO RUN - GOT CAUGHT!!! https://t.co/hf7zjqZYQ4
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
And just to make sure everyone knew what he wanted, Trump went on FOX News and said it out loud--He wants Bill Barr to indict President Obama and Vice President Biden.
Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re gonna get little satisfaction unless I win. Because I won’t forget it. But these people should be indicted, this was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. And that includes Obama, and that includes Biden; these are people that spied on my campaign, and we have everything.
Now they say they have much more, and I say Bill, we got plenty. You don’t need any more. . . .
And just for good measure, Trump went on Fox News yet again to demand that Bill Barr open an investigation into Biden. Note that his demand was interspersed with his assessment of the election. Trump's need to win the election and his desire for at least a public announcement of a criminal investigation into Biden are two thoughts that are thoroughly intertwined in his head. Trump says he is confident he will win the election, but his stated confidence does not shine through here. If he were really that confident then why is he so desperate to announce an investigation before the election? (And very few, if any, criminal investigations start off with a public announcement. Announcements are not usually made until arrests have been made in order to keep the targets of investigations in the dark.)
We've gotta get the attorney general to act. He's got to act, and he's got to act fast. He's got to appoint somebody. This is major corruption, and this has to be known about before the election.
And by the way, we're doing very well. We're gonna win the election. We're doing very well. If you look at all of what's happening and all of the people that come in and don't come in, you take a look all around the country-- and with Texas early voting, those are our votes, too. And we're doing well in Texas. I mean, I just got a report. We're doing great in Texas. But we're doing great all over.
But forget that. This has to be done early. So the attorney general has to act. (Emphasis added.)
I expect this from a banana republic. I never expected to see this in the United States. But I'm not a lawyer, so my opinion might not count for much. Well, how's this: Over 2600 former federal prosecutors and judicial department officials wrote a letter calling for Barr's resignation after he interfered with Roger Stone's sentencing guidelines. They wrote:
Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies.
We welcome Attorney General Barr’s belated acknowledgment that the DOJ’s law enforcement decisions must be independent of politics; that it is wrong for the President to interfere in specific enforcement matters, either to punish his opponents or to help his friends; and that the President’s public comments on DOJ matters have gravely damaged the Department’s credibility. But Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words. Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.
Those were all former Justice Department officials. It is relatively easy for them to speak out against Barr. It takes real guts for those who are currently employed by the Justice Department to speak out against the Big Boss, but three have done so. James D. Herbert, assistant US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, writes:
The attorney general acts as though his job is to serve only the political interests of Donald J. Trump. This is a dangerous abuse of power. From his misleading summary of the Mueller Report, to his selective intervention in cases against political allies of the president, to his accusation that victims such as George Floyd are being used as mere “props” by those calling for racial justice, to his baseless claims about mail-in ballots, William Barr has done the president’s bidding at every turn. For 30 years I have been proud to say I work for the Department of Justice, but the current attorney general has brought shame on the department he purports to lead.
Michael Dion, a Justice Department attorney in Seattle writes that Barr
is turning the Justice Department into a shield to protect the president and his henchmen. He misled the American public about the Mueller report. He meddled to spare Roger Stone and Michael Flynn from the consequences of their crimes. He demeaned career prosecutors in a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Barr does these things because his goal is to protect his master, rather than the American people.
And Phillip Halpern, wrote a letter explaining why he was resigning in protest after working as an assistant U.S. attorney for 36 years in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. Here is an excerpt, but I strongly encourage you to read the entire letter.
over the last year, Barr’s resentment toward rule-of-law prosecutors became increasingly difficult to ignore, as did his slavish obedience to Donald Trump’s will in his selective meddling with the criminal justice system in the Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone cases. In each of these cases, Barr overruled career prosecutors in order to assist the president’s associates and/or friends, who potentially harbor incriminating information. This career bureaucrat seems determined to turn our democracy into an autocracy.
Halpern did more than just write an open letter of resignation. He also sounded the alarm when he was interviewed by Lawrence O'Donnell on The Last Word.
This is the first article of a five-part series documenting Trump's attacks on our democracy. Here are all the articles in the series.
- Trump has politicized the Justice Department to help his friends and attack his enemies.
- Trump has attacked our courts and judicial system.
- Trump has attacked the free press and made it more dangerous for reporters to cover him.
- Trump is a stochiastic terrorist who has endangered the life of Michigan's Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and others.
- Trump has refused to commit himself to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election