President Donald Trump’s actions this week attacking the US justice system are stunning only in how much they conform to a three-year pattern that seems unstoppable.
Since his early days in office, Trump has scorned legal norms and the men and women who carry them out. He publicly mocked federal judges, derided the criminal justice system as a “laughingstock” and used his first presidential pardon on Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt.
Back then, Trump critics speculated that the President’s audacious remarks and actions might backfire. Perhaps they would hurt the administration’s legal positions in court. Perhaps public opinion would chasten him. Perhaps the dignity of office would change his behavior.
The episodes have only piled up with no obvious cost to Trump. He is in a wholly different category for the modern presidency, disregarding the rule of law and delegitimizing judges and others appointed to safeguard the system.
He publicly encourages prosecutors to reward his friends and punish his enemies. Over the years, he has proclaimed people guilty or not guilty before trial, or immediately deserving of the death penalty or exoneration. He is a law unto himself.
This week represented an escalation. Trump appears emboldened by his Senate acquittal earlier this month. He began immediately removing from office individuals who had testified at the House impeachment inquiry, and his pronouncements in recent days underscore his notion that the justice system is legitimate only if it reinforces his interests.
In Las Vegas on Thursday, Trump criticized the criminal case against his friend and political strategist Roger Stone and raised the possibility of “a bad jury.” Trump also broadly assailed law enforcement. He declared some FBI officials “scum” and said, without reference to anyone in particular, “So we have a lot of dirty cops.”
What makes Trump’s public criticism different from that of past presidents is the way it fundamentally attacks the rule of law.
The President resides at the pinnacle of the executive branch, presumably a model to all Americans, and clearly a leader who can influence those in the ranks below. And, still, he speaks not as someone who would reinforce America’s democratic values but as someone who would hold autocratic absolute power.
As the week began, Trump declared control over Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice, saying, “I am actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer.” Also on Tuesday, just two days before his friend Stone was to be sentenced, Trump granted clemency or pardoned several people with whom he had close ties.
Many had compromised the public trust, such as Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic Illinois governor who tried to sell an open Senate seat, and Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who was convicted of tax fraud and lying to officials.
The Trump remarks that followed suggested those pardons were a prelude to some reprieve for Stone, who was sentenced Thursday after being convicted last year of lying under oath to Congress and threatening a witness, related to Stone’s work on the 2016 Trump campaign. (The case was one of several that flowed out of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential contest.)
The President plainly believed Stone innocent of the charges and undeserving of prison time – and may have influenced the Justice Department on the latter point.
Federal prosecutors had initially asked Judge Amy Berman Jackson to sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison. But last week after Trump called the Stone case “horrible and very unfair” on Twitter, Barr agreed that seven years would be too harsh. (The original prosecutors on the case resigned, and DOJ submitted a second recommendation for “far less,” but without a specified number of years.)
Jackson ended up sentencing Stone to 40 months in prison. Within hours on Thursday, Trump claimed the jury forewoman was politically biased and said Stone has a “good chance of exoneration.” But he said he would wait to decide on clemency. Stone has asked for a new trial.
As she sentenced Stone, Jackson offered veiled criticism of Trump’s attempts to influence the case and the false narratives offered all around.
“The truth still exists. The truth still matters,” Jackson said. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t, his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the very foundation of our democracy.”
“The dismay and the disgust at the attempts by others to defend his actions as just business as usual in our polarized climate should transcend party,” Jackson continued. “The dismay and the disgust with any attempts to interfere with the efforts of prosecutors and members of the judiciary to fulfill their duty should transcend party.”
Defying the norms
Trump’s practices defy the norms of the modern presidency. Over the past three years, some comparisons have been made to President Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1974 after it became evident that he concealed his role in a cover up of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.
But Trump stands out in his broadscale attacks on legal traditions and due process. To him, the system is always “rigged.” He has publicly and ceaselessly derided judges.
An early 2017 example was Trump’s calling a US judge who ruled against his first travel ban a “so-called judge.” More recently this week, Trump targeted Judge Jackson before she sentenced Stone, asking if she was the judge who, “put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?”
“How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton?” his tweet continued, “Just asking!”
Trump has had startling words for those at all levels of the system. In 2017, as he addressed a group of law enforcement officers at a Long Island event, he said, “Please don’t be too nice” when putting suspects into squad cars. He gestured with his hands and suggested suspects’ heads need not be protected, saying, “You can take the hand away, OK?” A Trump spokeswoman said at the time he was just joking.
The emerging conflict with Barr recalls Trump’s pressure on his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, routinely humiliated with labels such as “beleaguered” and “weak.”
What’s to prevent the pattern?
Trump appears to have taken his Senate acquittal on the House charges as permission to keep breaching norms. The US House of Representatives had impeached the President on two articles, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, related to his dealings with Ukraine.
After the Senate vote, Trump fired individuals who had testified about the President’s actions that tying US security aid to Ukraine on that country’s investigation of Democratic adversaries.
As Trump recently dangled the possibility of clemency for Stone, it was hard not to recall Trump’s first pardon, for Arpaio, who disobeyed court orders to stop singling out for detention Latino and other minority drivers.
At a rally in Phoenix before that August 2017 pardon, Trump asked the crowd: “Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe?” As people applauded, Trump said, “So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? … I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.”
The federal judge who found Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt made clear he was not doing his job.
“Not only did (Arpaio) abdicate responsibility,” US District Court Judge Susan Bolton wrote, “he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise.”
For Trump, this is business as usual.