Barack Obama spoke earlier today at the University of Illinois, and in obvious reference to his presidential successor, he said, “It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents.”
For much of American history, Obama’s sentiment wouldn’t have been seen as controversial in the slightest. But as it turns out, at nearly the same time the former president was condemning White House politicization of federal law enforcement, Obama’s successor had some related thoughts.
President Donald Trump said Friday he wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into who authored the explosive anonymous opinion article published in The New York Times earlier this week.
“Jeff should be investigating who the author of that piece was, because I really believe it’s national security,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One.
The fact that the White House is engaged in a “frantic hunt” to uncover the author of the piece is itself evidence of Team Trump’s dysfunction. But now that the president wants the Justice Department to participate in the hunt, it’s becoming a more serious issue.
The trouble, of course, is that Trump’s call doesn’t make much sense. In order for the New York Times opinion piece to warrant scrutiny from the attorney general, there would need to be some kind of evidence of a federal crime. There isn’t. We’ve all read the op-ed and it does not describe illegal misconduct.
It also doesn’t point to any national security threats, unless one is inclined to accept the op-ed author’s concerns at face value and conclude that having an unfit president is itself a national security threat.
But the broader concern is the point Obama raised around the same time.
Trump continues to misunderstand what the attorney general does and what the job entails. Jeff Sessions is not Trump’s lawyer. The A.G. is not responsible for pursuing the president’s critics or launching politically motivated probes at the president’s direction.
And yet, here we are, watching this latest presidential call unfold just days after Trump publicly suggested Sessions ease up on two allegedly corrupt members of Congress in order to help the Republican Party’s interests in the midterm elections.
“It should not be a partisan issue to say that we do not pressure the attorney general or the FBI to use the criminal justice system as a cudgel to punish our political opponents,” Obama said. It shouldn’t be, but in 2018, apparently it is.