Donald Trump made all kinds of news when he talked to the New York Times on Friday, but of particular interest was the president's perspective on matters of federal law enforcement. He insisted, for example, "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department."
In the same 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's an extraordinary thing to see a sitting president say this out loud and on the record. 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.
President Trump on Tuesday appeared to suggest that Huma Abedin, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton, should face jail time, days after the State Department posted emails found on her estranged husband's computer that included confidential government information.In a tweet, Trump also urged the Justice Department to act in prosecuting Abedin and former FBI director James B. Comey, who the president fired in May amid the mounting investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election and contacts between Moscow and Trump's campaign.
The president apparently launched his little tirade after seeing a Fox News segment this morning. It led him to not only call for the Justice Department to go after Huma Abedin and James Comey, but also to embrace fringe framing of the institution itself, calling it the "Deep State Justice Department."
It's quite a way to start the new year.
I can appreciate why this morning's developments may not seem too surprising, but 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.
And yet, here we are, routinely confronting Trump's worst impulses. Indeed, let's not forget that just two months ago, Trump made little effort to hide his annoyance with his inability to pursue partisan vengeance through federal law enforcement. "You know the saddest thing, because I'm the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department," Trump said. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kinds of things that I would love to be doing. And I'm very frustrated by it."
One day later, he told reporters, "I'm not really involved with the Justice Department. I'd like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at Democrats." Asked if he might fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he fails to investigate the White House's political opponents, Trump said, "I don't know."
Brian Klass, a fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science, noted this morning, "In any other presidency, if the president publicly attacked his own Justice Dept, called to jail a political adversary without an indictment, or implied that the former FBI Director should be investigated/jailed, it would be a presidency defining scandal. For Trump, it's Tuesday."