Updated on February 11 at 5:51 p.m.
The Senate’s acquittal of Donald Trump elicited predictions that the president would now be “unleashed,” freed to do as he pleased. His actions over the past few days offer a first glimpse of what that might look like. With the threat of accountability gone, or at least diminished, Trump is bestowing favor on his loyal defenders, and visiting revenge on those he feels have betrayed him.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who testified in the impeachment hearings, was sacked from his post on the National Security Council, in what presidential aides made very clear was revenge. For good measure, so was his twin brother, a lawyer at the NSC and a fellow Army officer. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was asked to resign, and when he refused, he was fired Friday night. Elaine McCusker, who had been tapped to be Pentagon comptroller but clashed with the White House over freezing military aid to Ukraine, will have her nomination withdrawn, according to the New York Post.
And today, a day after prosecutors requested seven to nine years in prison for Roger Stone, the Justice Department suddenly intervened and announced that it would withdraw the recommendation in favor of a lighter sentence, a highly irregular move. Stone was convicted in November on seven counts, including witness tampering and making false statements, in a case that grew out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 election. Trump also tweeted angrily about the proposed sentence. “This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” he wrote. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Later, at the White House, Trump asserted an “absolute right” to intervene with the Department of Justice and called the prosecution of Stone “an insult to our country,” before saying he “had not been involved with it at all.”
The intervention by the Justice Department led to a mass resignation from the case in protest by prosecutors. First Aaron Zelinsky, a former Mueller aide, resigned from the case. (Zelinsky remains an assistant U.S. attorney, a career position, in Maryland.) Two others, Adam Jed and Mike Marando, also dropped off the case. A fourth, Jonathan Kravis, resigned from DOJ altogether in protest.
The president has always been obsessed with loyalty, and in particular loyalty to himself, not to rule of law. He infamously asked then–FBI Director James Comey for loyalty in January 2017, and after concluding that he was not receiving it, fired Comey in May of that year. But for the most part, Trump has been somewhat restrained about flexing his muscles to enforce loyalty. He fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, though Sessions had gotten that job only through political fealty. He tried to fire Mueller, but then–White House Counsel Don McGahn refused, and Trump relented.
Trump has been surprisingly spare with his pardon power. He hasn’t hesitated to hand out dubious pardons—to Dinesh D’Souza, for example, and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio—but he has so far not pardoned people like Paul Manafort, the former campaign chair who refused to testify against Trump and was sent to prison. Despite widespread predictions, Manafort remains in the clink.
The president had reason to hesitate. Though the pardon power is not reviewable, abusing it raised the risk of backlash, as did intervening in prosecutions. Voters might have gotten angry; Congress might have decided to investigate or even impeach him. But Trump has now survived impeachment, and has a good sense of how consistently Senate Republicans have his back. Some have even argued that Trump has learned his lesson from the impeachment.
The administration’s rush to aid Stone, especially set against the retributive firings, shows Trump newly willing to flex his muscles, and demonstrates how Pollyannaish the predictions of a chastened Trump were. The apology for firing Vindman goes this way: Vindman remains an officer, and Trump has a right to aides on the National Security Council whom he trusts. But Trump also said Tuesday that the military should consider disciplining Vindman, whose only offense seems to have been complying with a lawful subpoena from Congress.
The intervention on behalf of Stone is particularly disturbing because he was convicted of lying to protect Trump. Thanks to Stone’s stonewalling, we still don’t really know what happened between Trump and Russia in 2016. Stone had Trump’s back, and now Trump has his. So much for the law-and-order president.
During the Senate impeachment trial, House managers and the president’s lawyers tangled over whether a president could be impeached for actions that didn’t break specific laws. Trump’s support of Stone, even if it ends here, shows the stakes of that debate. The president isn’t breaking any laws by intervening in this case, but he is making clear that he places personal loyalty ahead of enforcing the rule of law.