Like a retreating army, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIntelligence suggests Russian bounties led to deaths of several US troops in Afghanistan: report Obama called Philonise Floyd before brother’s memorial service: NYT President Trump tries to cover his tracks by attacking the rule of law MORE and the Justice Department led by Attorney General William Barr have been laying waste to the rule of law as the election advances toward them. Whether it is the execution of an exit strategy or the groundwork for a second term, the toll is staggering.
Trump dismissed five inspectors general, all of whom were either critical of the administration or doing their duties to actively investigate alleged misconduct. His former national security adviser John Bolton has clearly accused the president of seeking some assistance from China to win the election. But with the collective outrage rendered numb from countless scandals and the mounting national crises, his relentless obstruction of justice and several efforts to undermine democracy barely register.
With few paying much attention, Barr is flourishing in his execution of an exit strategy for Trump. Without any apparent sense of ethical obligation, Barr has harmed the independent reputation for the Justice Department. Any notion that the Justice Department must defend the interests of the United States without fear or favor are nakedly exposed. This president, his administration, and his attorney general will allow those interests of Trump to supersede or contradict the interests of the United States.
One need only recall the last few months to see a pattern. There was the politically motivated dismissal of the charges against Michael Flynn after the former national security adviser pleaded guilty to those charges. The move was not long after the equally politically motivated interference in the sentencing for Roger Stone. The Justice Department embarrassingly overruled the line prosecutors in an effort to secure a much more lenient sentence for the consultant and campaign adviser of the president.
Those inexplicable legal maneuvers gave rise to this new deep skepticism surrounding the even more embarrassingly botched recent removal of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. There can be no benefit of the doubt given to Barr for suddenly dismissing a prosecutor overseeing criminal investigations into the president, his business entities, and of course their myriad of questionable financial entanglements.
Under any evidentiary standard, the conduct exhibited is intentional and ongoing. However, none of these actions takes place in a vacuum. These are dark days for the efforts of the president to win a second term. While there is still time for Trump to recover, the idea that he will serve only one term is growing. Perhaps the professed belief of Barr in an executive that is not only unitary but also supreme over the other branches explains his willingness to subvert all of the decades of independence for the Justice Department to a commander in chief with authoritarian inclinations.
However, the motives for Barr still seem politically motivated. If Trump is president for just one term, then the legal maneuvers are not the advent of an authoritarian takeover but of a calculated exit strategy to purge the record of a corrupt administration on its last legs. Any investigations that started under Trump may continue past the election if another president follows. But if they can be quashed now, the mood of reconciliation and peace may convince the next administration to leave the past alone.
If the president does manage to pull off another victory, this exit strategy converts seamlessly into a second term. With that scenario, the president has set his most loyal lieutenants into positions where he is vulnerable for legal attack. If the rule of law is to be redeemed, the responsibility falls to the career men and women of the Justice Department, who have to take a stand against the lawlessness of its leaders, as the Assistant United States Attorney Aaron Zelinsky, one of four prosecutors who quit the Stone case in protest of politically motivated interference, did with his testimony.
The restoration of Justice Department honor has to come from within. The men and women who comprise the institution, as well as the next attorney general, must restore their steadfast commitment to the Constitution.
Chris Gagin is an attorney and adviser to Republicans for the Rule of Law.