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Trump sees enemies at the Department of Justice

The president isn't just indifferent to the rule of law; he's also created something resembling an enemies list at the Department of Justice.
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Over the course of his six-month tenure as president, Donald Trump has already fired an FBI director, an acting attorney general, and dozens of federal prosecutors, all while lashing out repeatedly at federal courts who've dared to rule against him. Trump has not, in other words, demonstrated a real commitment to the rule of law.

But in the president's interview with the New York Times yesterday, the broader story took a more sinister turn. Consider Trump's latest enemies list:

* Attorney General Jeff Sessions: By recusing himself from the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal, Sessions isn't in a position to steer the probe in a way the White House likes. This, in Trump's mind, is an outrage.

* Special Counsel Robert Mueller: Trump accused Mueller of leading a team filled with conflicts of interest, and added that if the special counsel examines Trump's finances, the president may fire him.

* Former FBI Director James Comey: Trump suggested at one point that Comey may have been effectively trying to blackmail him, accused Comey of lying about their interactions, and insisted that the former director "illegally" leaked information. None of this is to be taken seriously.

* Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: Trump suggested the deputy A.G. is not to be trusted because he may not be a loyal Republican. "Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore," the president said. "There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he's from Baltimore." (Rosenstein is not actually from Baltimore, though he served as a Bush-appointed U.S. attorney in Maryland.)

* Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe: Trump, probably taking his cues from conservative media outlets, thinks McCabe is suspect because his wife was a Democratic candidate in Virginia.

Putting aside questions about personality -- Trump came across in the interview as someone preoccupied with a sense of grievance and paranoia -- this is an inordinate number of enemies for a president to have at the Department of Justice.

And all of this seems to extend from Trump's apparent belief that federal law enforcement is there to serve his, not the nation's, interests. It's one of the awkward consequences of electing an inexperienced president who sees himself as the nation's CEO: Trump seems to assume everyone in the executive branch is part of his team, and the idea of independence between the Justice Department and the White House is an inconvenient fiction, better left ignored.

This is likely to get worse. Consider Trump's comments to the Times about his view of the FBI director's responsibilities:

"And nothing was changed other than Richard Nixon came along. And when Nixon came along [inaudible] was pretty brutal, and out of courtesy, the F.B.I. started reporting to the Department of Justice. But there was nothing official, there was nothing from Congress. There was nothing -- anything. But the F.B.I. person really reports directly to the president of the United States, which is interesting. You know, which is interesting. And I think we're going to have a great new F.B.I. director."

His description of Nixon-era events is just factually wrong, but more alarming is Trump's belief that the FBI director will report "directly" to him.

Christopher Wray, the president's nominee to lead the bureau, told the Senate Judiciary Committee he believes the FBI must be independent of the White House. If Wray was telling the truth, Trump's Justice Department enemies list may soon have a new member.