In this April 24, 2014, file photo, then-Iowa Republican senatorial candidate and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker watches before a live televised debate in Johnston, Iowa. 
Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Trump’s former acting AG: Presidential abuses of power aren’t illegal

After Donald Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his post for failing to be as overtly political as the president wanted him to be, the reins of the Justice Department were temporarily handed to a man named Matt Whitaker. No one at the White House had bothered to vet Whitaker, and almost immediately, it became obvious that someone in the West Wing should’ve looked into this guy’s background.

Indeed, Whitaker was not only manifestly unqualified, the Iowa Republican had been at the center of a series of unfortunate controversies, including his role in an alleged scam operation he helped lead.

Eventually, the acting attorney general was replaced by Bill Barr – whether he was an improvement or not is a matter of perspective – but Whitaker hasn’t disappeared from the scene altogether. For example, he was on Fox News last night, trying to defend Trump from the scandal that’s likely to lead to the president’s impeachment.

“I’m a former prosecutor and what I know is this is a perfect time for a preliminary hearing, where you would say, ‘Show us your evidence. What evidence of a crime do you have?’

“I mean, the Constitution, you know, sort of – abuse of power is not a crime. Let’s fundamentally boil it down to – you know, the Constitution is very clear that this has to be some pretty egregious behavior, and they cannot tell the American people what this case is even about.”

Actually, it’s quite easy to tell the American people what this case is about. Trump and his team hatched a brazen scheme to withhold support for a vulnerable ally, in the hopes of leveraging the ally to participate in a political scheme intended to help Trump win an election. The American president, by all accounts, was directly and explicitly involved in executing the plan.

It was as obvious an abuse of power as any scandal in American history. And that, of course, is why Whitaker used one of the most memorable phrases of the crisis to date: presidential abuse of power, he said, “is not a crime.”

Note, Whitaker isn’t saying Trump is innocent of wrongdoing. On the contrary, during his national television appearance, the former acting AG effectively made the opposite point, conceding that the president did abuse his power.

But, Whitaker said, that’s not illegal, so there’s no point in making a fuss.

I’m happy to let legal experts speak to the statutory details with authority that I lack, but it’s worth noting for historical context that when Richard Nixon was forced to resign, he faced three articles of impeachment – and the third focused entirely on the then-president’s abuses of power.

If Trump’s allies believe they can win the political fight by arguing in effect, “Presidential abuses of power aren’t a big deal,” this debate will not go well for the White House.