About a month before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump turned to Hillary Clinton and said, “I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m going to say it, and I hate to say it, but if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.”
It was, at face value, an absurd declaration. The Republican candidate, unfamiliar with how the American system of justice operates, seemed clueless to the fact that presidents can’t “instruct” federal law enforcement to target their domestic political enemies. Trump, however, didn’t much care.According to the latest reporting from the New York Times, his indifference continued after he became president.
President Trump told the White House counsel in the spring that he wanted to order the Justice Department to prosecute two of his political adversaries: his 2016 challenger, Hillary Clinton, and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
The lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, rebuffed the president, saying that he had no authority to order a prosecution. Mr. McGahn said that while he could request an investigation, that too could prompt accusations of abuse of power. To underscore his point, Mr. McGahn had White House lawyers write a memo for Mr. Trump warning that if he asked law enforcement to investigate his rivals, he could face a range of consequences, including possible impeachment.
This reporting, which hasn’t been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, is extremely easy to believe. Trump has repeatedly – and in several instances, publicly – argued that federal law enforcement should serve as an extension of the White House’s political agenda.
If Trump did plan to instruct the Justice Department to target his perceived enemies, it would be an outrageous abuse, but it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Outrageous abuses involving federal law enforcement are a staple of this president’s political diet.
But it’s important not to stop reading the New York Times’ article after the first few paragraphs. The piece went on to report:
Mr. Trump’s lawyers also privately asked the Justice Department last year to investigate Mr. Comey for mishandling sensitive government information and for his role in the Clinton email investigation. Law enforcement officials declined their requests.
Oh? What’s that? Trump didn’t just want to direct the Justice Department to pursue Comey, the president’s lawyers took the additional step of asking for an investigation? And federal law enforcement refused?
Well, that seems like a rather important piece of information.
What’s more, it’s probably best not to assume the ordeal is limited to the past. The Times’ report went on to note that the president “has continued to privately discuss the matter, including the possible appointment of a second special counsel to investigate both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Comey, according to two people who have spoken to Mr. Trump about the issue.” He’s also reportedly expressed his disappointment with FBI Director Christopher Wray for not pursuing the White House’s political opponents.
This suggests Trump’s authoritarian instincts weren’t just a problem in the recent past, but rather, remain an ongoing point of concern.