Over the weekend, Donald Trump pushed the decency line past the breaking point when he tried to connect the gun massacre in Parkland to the investigation into his Russia scandal. As the president put it, FBI officials “are spending too much time” on the Russia investigation, instead of preventing gun violence – as if federal law enforcement has to choose one or the other.
Asked about the message yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “I think he’s making the point that we would like our FBI agencies to not be focused on something that is clearly a hoax.” The “hoax,” in Sanders’ mind, are the allegations that Trump’s political operation cooperated with the Russian operatives who attacked our elections.
It was a bizarre thing to say in light of the evidence pointing to collusion, but just as importantly, Sanders’ comments raised a related question: since when does the White House press secretary tell federal law enforcement officials what they should and shouldn’t examine?
Keep this question in mind when considering the president’s tweet from this morning:
“Question: If all of the Russian meddling took place during the Obama Administration, right up to January 20th, why aren’t they the subject of the investigation? Why didn’t Obama do something about the meddling? Why aren’t Dem crimes under investigation? Ask Jeff Sessions!”
Trump actually published this twice – because the first time, he accidentally misspelled his attorney general’s name.
Now, at this point, we could spend several paragraphs explaining to the confused president that there are no alleged “Dem crimes” to investigate. We could also explain that the Obama administration wanted to do more, but Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), blocked efforts to respond to Russia’s attack. We could even explain that Obama did do “something” – he imposed sanctions – which is a heckuva lot more than Trump’s done.
But even putting Trump’s tiresome nonsense aside, isn’t the more pressing question why the president is pressuring the Justice Department to investigate his political adversaries? Indeed, why does he keep doing this?
As we discussed the last time the subject came up, when a president uses his office to call on federal law enforcement to go after his perceived political enemies – without cause – it’s important not to grow inured to these abuses. The United States is not, and cannot become, some banana republic in which corrupt leaders use the levers of power and the justice system as a political weapon to be wielded against domestic foes.
Trump has already made clear he doesn’t understand the relationship between his office and the powers of federal law enforcement. Just two months ago, for example, the president declared, “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”
In the same New York Times interview, Trump argued – without proof – that former Attorney General Eric Holder was aware of all kinds of scandalous misdeeds committed by the Obama White House, but Holder “protected” the Democratic president. In Trump’s mind, this is admirable and worthy of praise: “I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
It remains an extraordinary comment. Trump not only sees himself as an autocratic ruler with “absolute” control over federal law enforcement, he also envisions a system in which an attorney general’s principal responsibility should be to protect a president’s interests, instead of the public’s.
It’s against this backdrop that Trump, just this morning, sought some kind of explanation for why Jeff Sessions isn’t launching an investigation into Democrats – as if this kind of presidential lobbying was somehow appropriate.