Donald Trump is asserting that he has the right to personally meddle in criminal cases amid a firestorm over the Justice Department’s decision to go easy on one of the U.S. President’s criminal friends.
Friday’s claim is only the latest in a history of Mr. Trump demanding the country’s judiciary be used to investigate his political opponents or exonerate him, and is reviving accusations that the President wants to unconstitutionally expand his powers by interfering in the rule of law.
Just hours after Mr. Trump’s assertion, The New York Times reported that Attorney-General Bill Barr had assigned an outside prosecutor to review the department’s handling of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser whose case Mr. Trump has previously allegedly tried to interfere with.
The entire drama is unfolding a little more than a week after the Republican majority in the Senate voted to acquit Mr. Trump of impeachment charges that he abused his power by putting pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, one of his potential presidential rivals.
On Friday morning, Mr. Trump quoted an interview by Mr. Barr with ABC News the previous day, in which Mr. Barr said the President “has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.”
“This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “But I have so far chosen not to!”
In the ABC interview, Mr. Barr had tried to defend himself after he intervened in the prosecution of Roger Stone, a former campaign adviser to Mr. Trump. Mr. Stone was convicted last year of lying to Congress and threatening witnesses during an investigation into ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Prosecutors on Monday asked for a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Mr. Stone. Mr. Trump tweeted that this was a “horrible and very unfair situation.” On Tuesday, the Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors and asked instead for a sentence “far less” than prosecutors had recommended. All four prosecutors on the case quit the file.
Mr. Barr admitted to ABC that he had given the order to demand a lesser sentence, but insisted he had decided to do this on his own before the President’s tweets. The Attorney-General also complained that Mr. Trump’s regular tweets demanding investigations and bashing judges “make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity.”
Mr. Trump’s critics argued that Mr. Barr wasn’t actually opposed to political interference in the judiciary, only that the President was being so open about it.
“Barr admits he intervened in the sentencing of a man who lied to Congress to cover up for the President. He’s only upset that Trump’s tweets made the political nature of his intervention obvious,” tweeted Adam Schiff, the House Democrat who led the impeachment investigation into Mr. Trump.
Mr. Barr has been one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal cabinet officials. Last year when special counsel Robert Mueller completed a report into ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia, for instance, Mr. Barr at first released only selective information about it that appeared to clear Mr. Trump of wrongdoing.
And on Friday, citing unnamed sources, The New York Times reported that the Attorney-General had launched investigations into his own department’s handling of politically sensitive cases. One outside prosecutor, the Times said, had been tasked with “grilling” Justice Department officials about their handling of Mr. Flynn’s case.
Chris Edelson, a professor of government at American University in Washington, could think of no precedent for a president openly asserting his power to dictate to the judiciary.
“It’s perfectly normal in authoritarian systems – I’d expect it from Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orban or Rodrigo Duterte. But not in a liberal democracy that insists the essence of the rule of law is that law enforcement is separate from politics,” he said.
Richard Nixon, for instance, was forced to resign from the presidency after he was caught conspiring to have the CIA shut down an FBI investigation into the Watergate scandal. But even he appeared to know this was wrong as he tried to do it covertly.
“It’s hard for people to know how to handle this when Trump is doing it so publicly. But it is dangerous, even if he’s being open about it,” Prof. Edelson said. “It’s a dangerous sign of an emboldened President who thinks he is above the law and there are no consequences. And he is right – there have been no consequences.”
Mr. Trump’s impeachment proceedings centred on his withholding US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine as he demanded Kyiv tarnish Mr. Biden. In a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky to co-ordinate with Mr. Barr about investigating the former vice-president.
The Democratic-controlled House impeached Mr. Trump in December over the matter. But the Senate acquitted him last week, with every Republican senator except Mitt Romney voting to let the President off the hook.
Mr. Trump has frequently attempted to intervene, or been accused of intervening, in investigations involving the FBI and the Department of Justice.
In May, 2017, Mr. Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, who was overseeing the Russia investigation. Mr. Comey later said Mr. Trump had demanded his “loyalty” and asked him to “let Flynn go.” Mr. Comey refused to do either of those things, and Mr. Flynn was ultimately convicted of lying to investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Mr. Mueller also detailed several attempts by Mr. Trump to have Mr. Mueller fired. Mr. Trump has used his Twitter account to demand investigations into Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, Mr. Comey and various other FBI officials. And he has flamed judges who have ruled against his administration’s efforts to restrict immigration and ban travellers from Muslim-majority countries.