As Trump politicizes prosecutions, Justice Dept feels chilling effect

If prosecutors pursue a case Trump dislikes, will their work be rejected? Will their careers be derailed? These questions shouldn't exist, but they do.
Justice Department Officials Announce Charges Against HSBC
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference to announce money laundering charges against HSBC on December 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. HSBC Holdings plc and HSBC USA NA have agreed to pay $1.92 billion and enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in regards to charges involving money laundering with Mexican drug cartels.Ramin Talaie / Getty Images

The Justice Department was jolted this week after Donald Trump intervened -- again -- in ongoing criminal proceedings, hitting a domino that culminated in four federal prosecutors resigning. It's a landmark moment for a Republican presidency that seems determined, not just to politicize prosecutions, but to bend the Justice Department to Trump's will.

The New York Times has a striking report on the developments and the degree to which Trump's actions defy American norms -- especially in the post-Watergate era -- and represent "ground-shaking conduct" that has demolished "once-sacrosanct guardrails." But of particular interest was the reporting on the chilling effect taking root at the DOJ. The Times spoke with more than a dozen career lawyers in U.S. attorney's offices, and found prosecutors who "raised new fears of what is to come" and "worried they might face more pressure."

Prosecutors across the United States, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said this week that they had already been wary of working on any case that might catch Mr. Trump's attention and that the [Roger Stone] episode only deepened their concern. They also said that they were worried that [Attorney General Bill Barr] might not support them in politically charged cases.

The pernicious nature of this dynamic is less obvious than Trump's overt interference in criminal-justice matters involving his friends and associates, but it's every bit as dangerous. At issue are prosecutors who no longer need to feel direct pressure from the White House, because they've internalized certain political assumptions.

Traditionally, prosecutors would be expected to consider cases based on merit -- the evidence, the seriousness of the crime, the likelihood of a conviction, the impact on related investigations, etc. -- but in 2020, prosecutors are confronted with new concerns.

If they pursue a case the president dislikes for political reasons, will their work be rejected by Trump and his sycophants? Will it be condemned on Fox News? Will their careers be derailed for filing charges against a presidential pal?

These questions undermine the integrity of the system -- and in 2020, some prosecutors believe they're unavoidable.

The Times' report added, "[N]umerous legal scholars say that Mr. Trump has shredded norms that kept presidents in check for decades, undermining public trust in federal law enforcement and creating at least the perception that criminal cases are now subject to political influence from the White House."

This is what it looks like when a nation's system of justice begins to unravel under the weight of partisan political intervention. As we discussed yesterday, a Justice Department that overrides its own prosecutors to do favors for the president's pals, and leaves prosecutors frightened of working on cases the president may not like, is a department that should expect to be seen as corrupt.