If President Trump’s goal is to ensure that Jeff Sessions is the only attorney general he will ever have, then his latest tweet tirade makes perfect sense. Otherwise, the president’s call for an attorney general who factors Republican electoral prospects into exercises of prosecutorial discretion is a call for a noxious politicization of the Justice Department.
In August, Representative Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.) was indicted (along with his wife) for allegedly using a quarter-million dollars in campaign funds as a personal piggy bank — lavish family trips, private-school tuition for his children, and, as the New York Times noted, even a $600 airline ticket for a pet rabbit. Two weeks earlier, Representative Chris Collins (R., N.Y.) was indicted for insider trading, a tip on negative developments at a pharmaceutical firm that helped family members avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock losses — about which the congressman allegedly lied to investigators. Besides being Republican members of the House, Hunter and Collins have in common that they were early, vocal supporters of Donald Trump.
Unable to get over his ire at Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, yet unwilling to take the political heat that would result from firing him, the president is apparently engaged in an unseemly crusade to provoke the attorney general’s resignation. What he unleashed this past weekend — hitting Sessions for the prosecutions of two Republicans that, Trump complained, endanger GOP control of their seats — was even worse than the usual Twitter rant.
Where to begin? There is Justice Department guidance for the proposition that prosecutors should avoid taking overt action on the eve of an election. It is debatable how wise this guidance may be. After all, refraining for political reasons from moving on a case that is ripe for prosecution is every bit as unsavory as taking rash action that could swing an election. In general, the best course is for prosecutors to take action when a case is ready, consistent with sound law enforcement, and ignore, within reason, the political calendar.
In any event, August, about three months before Election Day, is not the eve of the election. Indeed, the president’s own lawyers have argued that Labor Day, just yesterday, should be seen as the deadline for any new public action by the special counsel.
Trump’s reference to the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” as if a president were a disinterested spectator, is particularly lame. Sessions was appointed by the president, and — his recusal notwithstanding — he has aggressively pursued the Trump agenda. Hunter was charged with crimes by Adam Braverman, a career prosecutor named by Sessions in 2017 to serve as U.S. attorney in San Diego while Trump’s nominee awaits confirmation. Collins was charged by Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, who was appointed by . . . President Trump.
This is hardly a “deep state” conspiracy. If Republicans want the “easy wins” that Trump says will be denied them by the prosecutions, might we suggest better candidates? At the very least, candidates for whom avoiding felony indictment is not too high a bar to clear.
In the meantime, the president’s lack of self-control in commenting on pending investigations and prosecutions continues to harm the Justice Department’s reputation for integrity as safekeeper of the rule of law. It does damage to worthy cases, which can’t help but be seen as potentially driven by political pressure rather than evidence.
Finally, if the president truly wants to be rid of Sessions, with whom does he believe he’ll be able to replace him? The president is making an alarming record that he conceives of an attorney general as a political loyalist guided by Donald Trump’s political needs and whims. Even if the Senate were not so evenly divided, it is difficult to imagine the confirmation of any nominee, however exceptional, in these circumstances.
In short, nothing good can come from Trump’s campaign against his own attorney general, and if he understood the role of the Justice Department — or his own long-term political interest — he’d immediately cease and desist.