Four federal prosecutors quit the case against President Donald Trump’s dirty-trickster ally Roger Stone on Tuesday afternoon, after the Justice Department intervened in Stone’s favor by recommending a reduced sentence, per the president’s wishes. The seismic blow to the department’s tradition of independence was somewhat overshadowed that night by the results of the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. In the end, though, the Stone case might be a greater portent for this year’s presidential election than any caucus or primary.
The White House clearly interpreted the Senate’s acquittal vote last week as a signal that the president is effectively unaccountable for his actions until the November election. In some ways, Trump is now freer to act on his simmering anger toward his perceived enemies than at any other time in his presidency. That sense of impunity and vengefulness has already led to the dismissals of multiple White House aides and a U.S. ambassador who had cooperated with the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Trump’s perspective on the function of the Justice Department is also primarily defined by thoughts of revenge. The various inquiries that loomed over his presidency are the result of his own actions, as well as those of his associates acting at his behest. But the president instead blames the existence of these investigations on a shadowy cadre of career civil servants who purportedly sought to bring him down at any cost. As I noted earlier this week, the goal here is to whitewash Trump’s own scandals and attribute them to his enemies.
But the real danger with Trump’s conquest of the DOJ is prospective, not retrospective. With Attorney General Bill Barr and other allies firmly entrenched within the department, the president wields more influence over federal criminal prosecutions than any president since Richard Nixon. What’s more, he appears to be eager to use those powers to advance his own personal political interests. The risk isn’t just that Trump will bring the department under the White House’s control but that he’ll incorporate it into his reelection campaign as well.
The numbers, all other things being equal, aren’t in Trump’s favor. Too many Americans are repelled by his immigration and health care policies, by his racism and sexism, and by his corruption and lawlessness to allow a normal path to victory, in which a president both attempts to keep his campaign promises while expanding his base of support. His election in 2016 was essentially a fluke of the Electoral College: Fewer than 100,000 votes in three Rust Belt states made it irrelevant that three million more Americans had voted for his opponent. What’s more, Trump’s unpopularity has only grown since taking office. Polls last month showed that half of Americans wanted the Senate to remove him from office over the Ukraine scandal.
Since he likely can’t persuade the electorate to support him outright, Trump’s reelection hopes rest on sustaining enthusiasm among his supporters and depressing it for his Democratic opponent. Bending the Justice Department to his whims advances both of those goals. Last year, for example, Fox News and other conservative media outlets suggested that a long-awaited report by the DOJ inspector general, Michael Horowitz, would vindicate their conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation’s origins. While Horowitz found serious flaws in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant process, he also said in December that he found no evidence of political meddling and concluded the probe had a legitimate predicate to be opened.
Horowitz’s findings prompted a strange public response from John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. Barr assigned Durham last year to conduct a separate review of the Russia investigation’s origins. That review is still ongoing, but Durham took the unusual step of casting doubt on Horowitz’s conclusions after they came out. “Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened,” he said in a statement. As I noted at the time, Durham’s statement seemed to serve no purpose other than to provide further grist for Sean Hannity’s broadcasts.
Trump personally wants his political opponents prosecuted and jailed. The Washington Post reported this week that he flew into a multiday rage last year after prosecutors declined to bring charges against former FBI Director James Comey. A similar response wouldn’t be surprising after the department told Andrew McCabe, Comey’s former deputy, that he wouldn’t face charges, either, on Friday. But Trump also knows he doesn’t actually have to prosecute someone to inflict political damage.
Look no further than the Ukraine scandal, which sprang from his attempts last year to smear then-front-runner Joe Biden. Witnesses testified that Trump had no sincere interest in fighting foreign corruption and did not want Ukrainian officials to actually pursue an investigation intended to legitimately determine what, if anything, happened during Biden’s son’s tenure on the board of Burisma. By coercing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into publicly announcing the commencement of such an investigation, Trump hoped to reap the benefits of having his top electoral rival mired in corruption allegations—suspicions that would be easy to magnify in the ambient glow of the media’s horse-race election coverage.
This threat will not go away even if Biden doesn’t become the Democratic nominee. Rudy Giuliani could make a highly publicized trip to Bernie Sanders’s home state of Vermont, for example, and claim that he’s uncovered new evidence about Jane Sanders’s role in a controversial Burlington College land deal in 2010. Federal prosecutors closed an investigation into the matter in 2018 without bringing charges, and there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on her part. But that likely wouldn’t dissuade Trumpworld from demanding that Barr reopen the probe or assign an outside prosecutor to “review” it.
Spurious opportunities abound. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division could open an investigation into policing practices in South Bend, Indiana, during Pete Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor. Federal agents could start inquiring about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s possible role in the CityTime fraud scandal. In 2016, Russian operatives and the Trump campaign alike used social media targeting tools to depress turnout among African American voters and other key Democratic voting blocs. They appear ready to try again this year. And it’s hard to imagine a higher-octane fuel for a disinformation machine than sham DOJ investigations into one’s political opponents.
In the wake of the Stone resignations, Barr switched to damage control. He gave an interview with ABC News on Thursday night to defend his conduct. In an unusual move for a sitting Cabinet member, Barr also openly criticized the president’s comments on the case. “I have a problem with some of the tweets,” he said. “As I said at my confirmation hearing, I think the essential role of the attorney general is to keep law enforcement, the criminal process, sacrosanct, to make sure there is no political interference in it. And I’m happy to say that, in fact, the president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case.”
Trump usually doesn’t brook dissent easily, especially from his subordinates. This time, however, he maintained an even keel. “The president wasn’t bothered by the comments at all, and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement shortly after the interview aired. “President Trump uses social media very effectively to fight for the American people against injustices in our country, including the fake news. The president has full faith and confidence in Attorney General Barr to do his job and uphold the law.”
Some observers interpreted the back-and-forth as kayfabe. But whether it was a genuine contretemps or a fake-out staged for a reliably credulous media, the distinction is ultimately meaningless. If Barr is telling the truth, and Trump has never asked him to “do anything in a criminal case,” then Barr has shown himself willing to carry out many of Trump’s wishes without being ordered to do so. If you put the right people in the right places, you don’t really need to give them an order at all. The end result—a Justice Department that favors Trump’s political interests over the reality or appearance of partisan meddling—is the same.