The Proud Corruption of Donald Trump

The president has finally stated it plainly: He believes the government should subjugate rule of law to his political needs.

Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump
Jeff Sessions applauds a speech by President Trump in March. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

There are few more volatile combinations than Donald Trump, a long weekend, and Twitter, and on Monday, the president bubbled over as reliably and messily as a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano.

“The Democrats, none of whom voted for Jeff Sessions, must love him now,” Trump added.

The president is referring to the indictments of Representatives Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California. Collins has been charged with insider trading, Hunter with using campaign moneys to live lavishly. Both are Republicans, and both were early and consistent defenders of Trump. In both cases, indictments came so late that replacing them on the ballot could be challenging—and with Democrats aiming to retake control of the House in November, every seat matters.

Trump’s tweet is so blunt one is almost tempted to look for deeper meaning. He’s saying the U.S. Department of Justice should be most concerned not with enforcement of laws but with aiding the Republican Party. Plenty of politicians are corrupt, but few announce it proudly from their Twitter accounts.

There’s nothing particularly new about politics interfering with the Justice Department. Since the attorney general is a political appointee, tension between political aims and the impartiality expected of the justice system is a constant battle. Though these days George W. Bush aides comment censoriously about Trump, the Bush administration orchestrated a mass firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Richard Nixon saw the Justice Department as responsible for protecting him, too.

This current situation is a little different for two reasons. First, Trump is more publicly estranged from Attorney General Jeff Sessions than any president has been from any cabinet member since the Andrew Johnson administration. Second, Trump is openly admitting he wants crimes covered up for political reasons, where his predecessors kept the truth behind closed doors.

For the president to say this is at once astonishing and utterly predictable. It’s the latest example of Trump saying the quiet part loud—openly declaiming the nefarious ulterior motive that other corrupt politicians try to stifle. But the president has been working up to a statement of this sort for his entire term. A week after taking office, according to former FBI Director James Comey, Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Trump has disputed the account, but Comey testified to it under oath, and the president has made plenty of other similar remarks publicly.

He shared an assessment that Sessions’s recusal from Russia-related matters was “an unforced betrayal of the President of the United States.” He also contrasted Sessions with former Attorney General Eric Holder, telling The New York Times, “I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him.” (The implication that Holder saved Obama from prosecution is entirely without evidence.) I and other writers have also noted the way that Trump is consistently working to undermine and subvert the rule of law.

So while it has been clear for some time that Trump views the Justice Department’s proper role as protecting him, he has never said so quite so bluntly. For him to do so in the context of the Republican House majority is ironic: Trump, the ultimate renegade to party rule, has become the ultimate party hack. Yet when Trump worries for the GOP’s fortunes, he is truly worrying for his own future, since a Democratic majority might attempt to impeach him.

Comments like Monday’s tweet, however, may serve only to reinforce arguments for impeachment. Many of Trump’s prior statements have been naked attempts to intervene in the process of justice—whether it was allegedly asking Comey to drop an investigation of Flynn, or his regular demands for Sessions to end the “witch hunt” of the Russia investigation. The comment on Collins and Hunter is unusual because for once he is lamenting decisions after the fact. Yet in doing so, he has proclaimed his corrupt theory of the Justice Department.

On Tuesday morning, the CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin railed against Trump:

This tweet alone may be an impeachable offense. This is such a disgrace. This is so contrary to the traditions of the Department of Justice. You know, I used to be a U.S. Attorney. If I went to my supervisor and said, you know, we shouldn’t indict or investigate a member of the president’s party because he’s a member of the president’s party, I probably would have been suspended if not fired.  

An impeachable offense, however, is really anything that the House of Representatives decides is one. The Constitution’s criterion, of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” is notably vague, and impeachment is at heart a political, rather than legal, maneuver. A Democratic takeover of the House will make impeachment far more likely, but if Republicans retain control of the Senate, as expected, removal of the president seems a fantasy.

The Senate would be called on to try the president if the House impeached him, but the body would also be required to confirm a successor to Sessions if he resigns or is fired. Trump said last week that Sessions’s job is safe through the midterm elections, with the clear implication that it will not be safe afterward. Politico reported last week that the president is personally lobbying senators to turn on Sessions.

As Matt Ford has written at The New Republic, there’s precedent for senators imposing strict conditions on a president who is appointing a new attorney general, as the Senate did when, in the midst of Watergate, Richard Nixon nominated Eliot Richardson for the job. Richardson’s eventual stand on principle—refusing to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox—precipitated Nixon’s resignation.

There’s a core group of Republican senators who often criticize Trump, like Ben Sasse (who said Monday’s tweet reminded him of a banana republic), Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker, who alternates between friendly and scorching remarks—including lamenting the push to topple Sessions. But others, like Lindsey Graham, have portrayed the clash between Sessions and Trump as simply a workplace dynamic that is “beyond repair.” On the Today show last week, Graham said, “The president has lost confidence in Jeff Sessions. I’m telling you what everybody in the country knows: This is a dysfunctional relationship. We need a better one.”

As Trump so often does to his allies, he has cut Graham off at the knees with his latest remarks. Insofar as the tie between Trump and Sessions is broken, that’s only because Sessions has refused to convert the Justice Department into a wholesale subsidiary of the Trump political operation. The president’s frankness may be appalling, but it means there’s no need to read between the lines or overanalyze. Trump keeps telling the nation who he is. Are senators listening?