Cohen, who implicated Trump in campaign finance violations as he admitted guilt, “wasn’t a very good lawyer, frankly,” Trump told Earhardt. He added that Cohen worked for him “you could really say it was more or less part time” and Trump would “see him sometimes.” That statement came after Trump noted that his not-very-good, part-time personal lawyer also worked for him for a decade.
The effect of Trump being interviewed by a host of “Fox & Friends” seems to be that he feels perfectly comfortable offering campaign-rally-style riffs on whatever he’s presented with, perhaps understanding that few of his assertions will be robustly contested. He always riffs with everyone, of course, but this Earhardt interview seems to have been largely unbounded on his part.
For example, it’s, shall we say, unusual for a president to suggest that the process of offering criminal suspects reduced sentences in exchange for information — flipping, as Cohen did — “almost ought to be illegal.” But it was his exegesis on the nature of the Department of Justice that seemed most remarkable.
Let’s illustrate this by quoting a line of argument presented by Trump that followed his exasperation at how Cohen sold him out.
“I’ll tell you that somebody made a better deal. Awan, the IT guy for Schultz. Congresswoman Schultz,” Trump said. “He had all the information on Democrats. He had all the information on everybody. He went to jail holding the hands of the Justice Department and the FBI. They sat there together. They were smiling and laughing, and he got nothing. And he stole money, and he had more information on corruption of the Democrats than anybody, and they don’t even have his computers and his servers. They just gave him, you saw that. It was on your show. They gave him nothing, nothing.”
Trump was referring to an agreement reached between the government and Imran Awan, a former aide to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who at the time was chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Awan’s case became a focal point of conservative media attention due to its overlap with a number of hot-button political issues: computer servers, the DNC, a timeline that overlapped with the 2016 campaign and, of course, Awan’s Pakistani heritage. In July, Awan pleaded guilty to making a false statement on a bank loan application — one of the eight charges to which Cohen also admitted guilt. In its document outlining the agreement with Awan, the government specifically noted that any theories about Awan having illegally accessed information were incorrect.
“The Government has found no evidence that your client illegally removed House data from the House network or from House Members’ offices, stole the House Democratic Caucus Server, stole or destroyed House information technology equipment, or improperly accessed or transferred government information, including classified or sensitive information,” the government document reads.
Trump’s assessment of Awan, though, remains unchanged from when he first tweeted about the case. As the deal was being negotiated, he offered this assessment:
Our Justice Department must not let Awan & Debbie Wasserman Schultz off the hook. The Democrat I.T. scandal is a key to much of the corruption we see today. They want to make a “plea deal” to hide what is on their Server. Where is Server? Really bad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 7, 2018
Trump’s framing then is not backed up by government evidence, nor was the framing he offered to Earhardt. But notice the evolution: The Justice Department is positioned in the tweet as being at risk of making an error; to Earhardt, Justice and the FBI were both at fault and complicit. Prosecutors were “smiling and laughing.” That they didn’t reveal a nefarious plot implicating the Democrats is not a function of the plot not existing, and it’s not even a function of incompetence. It’s a function, in Trump’s estimation, of their being in the bag for his political opponents.
“The reason he got nothing [is] because the Dems are very strong in the Justice Department,” Trump continued. “I put in an attorney general that never took control of the Justice Department. Jeff Sessions never took control of the Justice Department, and it’s a sort of an incredible thing.” He later added that he gave Sessions the job only because Sessions supported him early in his campaign — itself an admission that, in another administration with another Congress, might spur a few hearings.
This assertion is ridiculous, of course. The Department of Justice and FBI are certainly imperfectly nonpartisan, but at least they strive to be. Few Americans familiar with those organizations, though, would assume that any partisan bias is toward the Democrats.
Update: Later in the day, Sessions responded in a statement.
Eventually Trump’s real frustration emerged. The Justice Department was targeting people like Paul Manafort — “I have great respect for what he’s done in terms of what he’s going through” — instead of his opponents.
“If you look at Hillary Clinton’s person, you take a look at the people that work for Hillary Clinton, and look at the crimes that Clinton did with the emails and she deletes 33,000 emails after she gets a subpoena from Congress, and this Justice Department does nothing about it and all of the other crimes that they’ve done,” he said.
Again, the conclusion is not that his long-standing, unsupported shorthand for nefarious actions undertaken by his onetime political opponent is incorrect. It’s that the Justice Department isn’t charging her or her staff or former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for unspecified crimes. The Department of Justice produced a public report about the handling of the Clinton email server investigation, and Sessions asked a U.S. attorney in Utah to review the FBI’s handling of investigations, but Trump’s demand is simpler: Put them in handcuffs, not us.
In many ways, the interview with Earhardt simply lays out the framework beneath much of Trump’s public frustration over the past year. He sees questions about possible illegal activity by himself and his campaign as intrusive, unfair and unwarranted and sees his political opponents as necessarily corrupt. The Department of Justice should be a vehicle that serves Trump’s needs, not the country’s, and when it doesn’t reflect that prioritization, it’s failing.
It’s encapsulated in Trump’s ongoing frustration at Sessions’s recusal from the Russia investigation, an act that Trump again complained about to Earhardt. When Sessions made that decision, acting on the advice of department officials, Trump was reportedly (and demonstrably) furious: Sessions wasn’t prioritizing loyalty to Trump. He wanted a Roy Cohn — the former Joe McCarthy and Trump Organization attorney whose ferocious defense of his clients established Trump’s expectations. He got an attorney general.
The Justice Department aims for the unattainable goal of perfect blindness. Trump instead wants it to view red and blue differently. He sees the department’s objective actions focused on criminal activity as actions targeting him personally.
The significance of that is left to the reader.