But Trump was the unrivaled master at institutional corruption. And, as long as politicians in power fear legal accountability, they will study his approach to bending the Justice Department to his will, looking to engage—as Clausewitz might put it—in lawyering by other means.
Here are the six steps in the Trump playbook:
Kevin Wack: American justice isn’t impartial anymore
First, you’ve got to get the right attorney general. Having one who is ideologically sympathetic to you isn’t good enough—after all, if you’ve made it this far, your main concern should be loyalty, not ideological consistency. Even having one who slavishly worships you isn’t good enough. Such a person, after all, might still recuse himself. He might not have a great deal of institutional sophistication about the department and how it works. He might not have the moxie to do the things that need to be done. He may leave things operationally in the hands of some deputy who actually cares about his reputation, if only a little, and who’s constantly looking over his shoulder worried about what the career folks think of him.
You need someone who does not need to be all things to all people—who will, like a honey badger, just not care if the legal community disapproves of him or if the press is appalled or if members of Congress call for his impeachment. You want someone who knows his way around the department, who knows what levers to pull, and who will be totally fearless about pulling them.
And this point is crucial: Your right-hand man (or woman) in this endeavor needs to be someone who is willing to reach down to the level of individual prosecutions to get his way. Because scuttling an investigation isn’t a high-level policy task. It requires getting dirty. If your guy is not willing to do that, he’s not serious.
If you’ve got this person in from the beginning, you’re golden. There won’t be an investigation to start with—because you’ll have squashed it. This is the ideal outcome.
The hard part arises if you screw up initially, starting with someone who’s not up to the task, and your fixer doesn’t come in until the major investigation is well under way, maybe even done.
This brings us to step two: once the investigation concludes, make sure your attorney general snips off any remaining loose threads. You don’t want to leave hanging the possibility that your friends—or you yourself—could face criminal charges when you eventually leave power. So encourage your attorney general to make a public statement that the existing evidence does not establish that any further crimes—such as, say, obstruction of justice—took place. This isn’t an absolute shield against future prosecution, because the Justice Department can theoretically reopen matters that have been closed. But here’s where a really sly operator can turn the Justice Department’s traditions against it. There’s a pretty strong norm against doing this without new evidence, which means that it will be significantly more controversial for some future administration to pursue charges against you with this record on the table. And if a future administration decides to go for it anyway, you’ll be able to point to that contrary record in complaining that you’re facing politically motivated harassment.