President Donald Trump tweeted this on Sunday afternoon:
“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”
That tweet is a hugely telling window into how Trump views the Justice Department and, by extension, everyone in the federal government. He views them all as employees of his, people who are required to do what he asks when he asks it to be done. And to do so without argument.
Trump’s view on the government is informed by his years in the private sector. As the head of the Trump Organization, everyone did work for him. If Trump wanted someone to run across the street and get him coffee, there was someone who did it. And, if that person didn’t get him the coffee in a prompt manner or got him the wrong sort of coffee, he could get rid of them. (I am oversimplifying somewhat, but you get the idea.)
Trump has brought that same view to the government. The problem is that that’s not how the government works.
Yes, Trump is the head of the federal government. But that doesn’t mean every agency and every person within those agencies works for him. To be technical about it, they work for the American taxpayers who pay their salaries. Their loyalty – and this is particularly important as it relates to the Justice Department – is to the Constitution, not to Trump.
There have been any number of instances in Trump’s first 17 months that illustrate his lack of understanding of that critical difference. (The debate over whether Trump ignores these differences or is simply ignorant of them is an unsolvable, but critical, one.)
Take Trump’s reaction to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself in Justice’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign power.
In a July 2017 interview with The New York Times, Trump explained it this way:
“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
“Extremely unfair … to the president.”
In Trump’s mind, Sessions should have foreseen the problems his recusal would create for his boss, AKA the President, and never done it in the first place. Trump seems entirely unaware of the idea that Sessions chose to recuse himself so as to avoid the idea of impropriety in the investigation. And that the Sessions’ recusal came after it was revealed that he had omitted to note during his confirmation hearings that he had several contacts with Russian officials during the course of the presidential campaign and transition.
Trump’s Sunday tweet is more of the same. Whether a president can “demand” (or even “hereby demand”) a Justice Department to look into whether an informant was placed in his campaign for political reasons is hard to determine because, well, past presidents haven’t made that sort of demand before.
Why not? Because they understood that the Justice Department, moreso even than the rest of the federal government, is given broad leeway to operate independently – committed to the rule of law rather than a president’s whim.
Trump respects no sort of line like that: The Justice Department works for me – so they should be doing what I want. Hence his repeated urgings for the Justice Department to look more closely into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, the Uranium One deal that went through when Clinton was secretary of state and, of course, the idea of an informant placed in the Trump campaign as a spy.
What’s fascinating is that Trump may well be unknowingly arguing against his own best interests when it comes to the informant case, as former FBI agent and CNN contributor Asha Rangappa explained in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Friday.
“Trump and his backers are wrong about what it means that the FBI reportedly was using a confidential source to gather information early in its investigation of possible campaign ties to Russia. The investigation started out as a counterintelligence probe, not a criminal one. And relying on a covert source rather than a more intrusive method of gathering information suggests that the FBI may have been acting cautiously – perhaps too cautiously – to protect the campaign, not undermine it.”
So, there’s that.
That level of nuance, however, is entirely lost in Trump’s view of how the government works and who its employees should be loyal to. To him, he’s the boss. He won. With 306 electoral votes. With all that beautiful red on the map. And now, the government is his to do what he wants with. Period.
The thing is: That’s not how the government does or should work. The loyalty of the Justice Department is to the law and the Constitution, not to any individual president. That may annoy Trump and his supporters. But it should give them considerable comfort – knowing that when the political pendulum inevitably swings against them, the government will continue to be loyal not to a man (or woman) or a political party, but to the American people.