An as­sault on the rule of law

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

Scary ques­tion of the day: If this is how Pres­i­dent Trump re­acts to news of a fed­eral grand jury be­ing em­ployed in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, what hap­pens if things turn re­ally se­ri­ous?

Re­ports that spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III is us­ing a grand jury to col­lect ev­i­dence reaf­firmed what was al­ready ob­vi­ous to le­gal ob­servers: This probe — and for the pres­i­dent, this prob­lem — is not go­ing away any­time soon.

Mueller is beef­ing up his staff, bring­ing in for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors with ex­pe­ri­ence in com­plex fi­nan­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Of course there is a grand jury.

That’s how pros­e­cu­tors do their work, un­less they have come to the quick con­clu­sion that the sub­ject is a dry hole. This was never likely in Mueller’s case, and ev­ery week seems to open a new and po­ten­tially pro­duc­tive av­enue for him to fol­low.

So White House spe­cial coun­sel Ty Cobb had the right re­sponse to the grand jury news. “The White House fa­vors any­thing that ac­cel­er­ates the con­clu­sion of his work fairly,” he said in a state­ment. “The White House is com­mit­ted to fully co­op­er­at­ing with Mr. Mueller.” Re­strained. Ap­pro­pri­ate. Nor­mal. Not so the pres­i­dent. Once again, he di­min­ished the sig­nif­i­cance of Rus­sian ef­forts to in­ter­fere in the 2016 elec­tion and de­meaned the find­ings of the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity: “The Rus­sia story is a to­tal fab­ri­ca­tion. It is just an ex­cuse for the great­est loss in the his­tory of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.”

Once again — as the West Vir­ginia crowd chanted “Lock her up!” — he said the fo­cus should be on his van­quished op­po­nent, not him: “What the pros­e­cu­tor should be look­ing at are Hil­lary Clin­ton’s 33,000 deleted emails. And they should be look­ing at the paid Rus­sian speeches. And the owned Rus­sian com­pa­nies. Or let them look at the ura­nium she sold that is now in the hands of very an­gry Rus­sians.”

Even leav­ing aside the fac­tual flim­si­ness of Trump’s ac­cu­sa­tions, the in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of a sit­ting pres­i­dent mak­ing this ar­gu­ment is im­pos­si­ble to over­state. As his stil­lAt­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions told the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in Jan­uary, “This coun­try does not pun­ish its po­lit­i­cal ene­mies.”

This coun­try also has mech­a­nisms, well-honed and well-tested, for deal­ing with sit­u­a­tions where crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions are war­ranted. They re­quire re­cusal in cases that pose a clear con­flict of in­ter­est, as Ses­sions rec­og­nized in im­me­di­ately walling him­self off from any Clin­ton in­ves­ti­ga­tion and even­tu­ally ac­cepted in re­cus­ing him­self from the Rus­sia probe.

They set out pro­ce­dures for the White House to fol­low in deal­ings with the Jus­tice Depart­ment in­volv­ing crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings, de­signed, as then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. ex­plained, to en­sure that pros­e­cu­tors are “im­par­tial and in­su­lated from po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.”

Such niceties are not for Trump. No sur­prise there, but the worst of his West Vir­ginia speech was yet to come. Trump fol­lowed by im­pugn­ing the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion as an il­le­git­i­mate ef­fort to undo the elec­tion re­sults: “They can’t beat us at the vot­ing booths, so they’re try­ing to cheat you out of the . . . fu­ture that you want. They’re try­ing to cheat you out of the lead­er­ship that you want with a fake story that is de­mean­ing to all of us, and most im­por­tantly de­mean­ing to our coun­try and de­mean­ing to our Con­sti­tu­tion.”

Trade­mark Trump. He takes the very thing that he is do­ing — in this case, de­mean­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion — and flings that ac­cu­sa­tion back at his op­po­nent. Trump’s cam­paign and now his pres­i­dency have been an un­ceas­ing ef­fort to de­mean the Con­sti­tu­tion. From “fake news” to “so­called” judges, from his ill­con­sid­ered travel ban to en­cour­ag­ing po­lice of­fi­cers’ rough­ing up of sus­pects, Trump is a one-man as­sault on the rule of law.

In­cit­ing sup­port­ers to equate a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion (and po­ten­tial prose­cu­tion) with a usurpa­tion of their demo­cratic choice is the most chill­ing yet. What Trump de­cries as a witch hunt is an au­tho­rized in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­ing con­ducted pur­suant to Jus­tice Depart­ment rules, by an ex­pe­ri­enced pros­e­cu­tor, se­lected for this job by another ex­pe­ri­enced pros­e­cu­tor, who was nom­i­nated by Trump him­self. That Trump and his al­lies are schem­ing to un­der­mine Mueller’s le­git­i­macy un­der­scores that their sole goal is re­tain­ing power, the law be damned.

Some read­ers have asked a fair and im­por­tant ques­tion: Why is nearly ev­ery col­umn of mine about Trump? The an­swer is: Trump. His be­hav­ior is so ex­treme and so dan­ger­ous that to re­spond only episod­i­cally and oc­ca­sion­ally is to risk al­low­ing it to ap­pear ac­cept­able. Out­ra­geous words and out­ra­geous ac­tions re­quire expressions of out­rage in re­turn, each and ev­ery time. That will con­tinue un­til the dan­ger sub­sides.

DARRON CUM­MINGS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Trump speaks dur­ing a rally on Thurs­day in Hunt­ing­ton, W.Va.

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