Pres­i­dent Trump’s end­less as­sault on the rule of law

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The “rule of law” dis­tin­guishes democ­ra­cies from dic­ta­tor­ships. It’s based on three fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples. Trump is vi­o­lat­ing ev­ery one of them. The first is that no per­son is above the law, not even a pres­i­dent. Which means a pres­i­dent can­not stop an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his al­leged il­le­gal acts.

Yet in re­cent weeks, Trump fired At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, who at least had pos­sessed enough in­tegrity to re­cuse him­self from spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump’s pos­si­ble col­lu­sion with Rus­sia in the 2016 elec­tion.

Trump re­placed Ses­sions with an in­ex­pe­ri­enced loy­al­ist hack, Matthew Whi­taker, whose only dis­tinc­tion to date has been loud and pub­lic con­dem­na­tion of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion. As a con­ser­va­tive le­gal com­men­ta­tor on CNN, Whi­taker even sug­gested that a clever at­tor­ney gen­eral could se­cretly starve the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of funds.

There’s no ques­tion why Trump ap­pointed Whi­taker. When asked by the Daily Caller, Trump made it clear: “As far as I’m concerned, this is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that should have never been brought. It should have never been had . ... It’s an il­le­gal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” The sec­ond prin­ci­ple of the rule of law is that a pres­i­dent can­not pros­e­cute po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents or crit­ics. De­ci­sions about whom to pros­e­cute for al­leged crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing must be made by pros­e­cu­tors who are in­de­pen­dent of pol­i­tics.

Yet Trump has re­peat­edly pushed the Jus­tice Depart­ment to bring charges against Hil­lary Clin­ton, his 2016 ri­val, for us­ing a pri­vate email server when she was sec­re­tary of state, in al­leged vi­o­la­tion of the Pres­i­den­tial Records Act.

Dur­ing his cam­paign, Trump led crowds in chant­ing “lock her up,” called Clin­ton “crooked Hil­lary,” and threat­ened to pros­e­cute her if he was elected pres­i­dent.

Af­ter tak­ing of­fice, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times, Trump told White House coun­sel Don­ald McGahn he wanted the Jus­tice Depart­ment to pros­e­cute Clin­ton. McGahn re­sponded that Trump didn’t have the au­thor­ity to do so, and such ac­tion might even lead to im­peach­ment.

Yet Trump has con­tin­ued to press Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing Whi­taker when he served as Ses­sions’ chief of staff — about the sta­tus of Clin­ton-re­lated in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Never mind that Trump’s se­nior ad­viser and daugh­ter, Ivanka Trump, sent hun­dreds mes­sages on her pri­vate email server to gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees and aides that de­tailed gov­ern­ment busi­ness, poli­cies and pro­pos­als. Or that other Trump of­fi­cials have used their pri­vate email to con­duct of­fi­cial busi­ness as well.

Break­ing the rule of law doesn’t re­quire con­sis­tency. It re­quires only a thirst for power at what­ever cost. The third prin­ci­ple of the rule of law is that a pres­i­dent must be re­spect­ful of the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary.

Yet Trump has done the op­po­site, openly ridi­cul­ing judges who dis­agree with him in or­der to fuel pub­lic dis­trust of them — as he did when he called the judge who is­sued the first fed­eral rul­ing against his travel ban a “so-called” judge.

Last week, Trump re­ferred de­ri­sively to the judge who put a hold on Trump’s plan for re­fus­ing to con­sider asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions an “Obama judge,” and railed against the en­tire U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Ninth Cir­cuit. “You go to the Ninth Cir­cuit and it’s a dis­grace,” he said. He also is­sued a sub­tle threat: “It’s not go­ing to hap­pen like this any­more.”

In an un­prece­dented pub­lic re­buke of a sit­ting pres­i­dent, Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice John Roberts con­demned Trump’s at­tack.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clin­ton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an ex­tra­or­di­nary group of ded­i­cated judges do­ing their level best to do equal right to those ap­pear­ing be­fore them. That in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary is some­thing we should all be thank­ful for.”

Trump im­me­di­ately shot back: “Sorry Chief Jus­tice John Roberts, but you do in­deed have ‘Obama judges,’ and they have a much dif­fer­ent point of view than the peo­ple who are charged with the safety of our coun­try.”

This was fol­lowed by an­other Trump threat on Twit­ter: “Much talk over di­vid­ing up the 9th Cir­cuit into 2 or 3 Cir­cuits. Too big!”

Al­most a half-cen­tury ago, an­other pres­i­dent vi­o­lated th­ese three ba­sic prin­ci­ples of the rule of law, al­though not as bla­tantly as Trump. Richard Nixon tried to ob­struct the Water­gate in­ves­ti­ga­tion, pushed the Jus­tice Depart­ment to pros­e­cute his po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies and took on the ju­di­ciary.

But Amer­ica wouldn’t al­low it. The na­tion rose up in outrage. Nixon re­signed be­fore Con­gress im­peached him.

The ques­tion is whether this gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans will have the strength and wis­dom to do the same.

An­drew Harrer / Bloomberg

Pro­test­ers in Wash­ing­ton on Nov. 8 call for act­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Matthew Whi­taker’s re­cusal from over­see­ing the Rus­sia elec­tion-med­dling probe.

As­so­ci­ated Press 1973

Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon sparked outrage by as­sault­ing the rule of law.

Alex Bran­don / As­so­ci­ated Press

Pres­i­dent Trump is bla­tant in de­fy­ing key demo­cratic prin­ci­ples.

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