But in the real world, here’s what’s staring us in the face: For Trump, the very public nature of his efforts to corrupt law enforcement is a key feature of those efforts, not a byproduct of them that he pathologically can’t control.
Whatever sense of obligation Barr takes from this, if any, it imposes a grave imperative on the rest of us to communicate it to voters and articulate what can be done about it.
All this is laid bare by this new Post report on Barr’s travails. Barr has considered quitting, because Trump keeps tweeting about Justice Department cases, even after Barr publicly warned it was making his job harder.
But Trump “has told those around him he is not going to stop tweeting about the Justice Department,” the Post report continues. According to officials, “Trump considers highlighting what he sees as misconduct at the FBI and Justice Department as a good political message.”
There you have it: Trump can simply claim law enforcement is guilty of misconduct when it isn’t — corrupting our discourse with disinformation — which in turn justifies whatever corrupt efforts to manipulate law enforcement he sees fit to attempt.
It’s all carried out in the open
Trump publicly attacked the Russia investigation as a witch hunt for years, expressly to justify his efforts — also undertaken in plain sight — to obstruct it.
True, there are things Trump didn’t want publicly revealed — like his campaign’s 2016 efforts to encourage and benefit from Russian electoral sabotage.
But this is precisely where the public corruption comes in. Trump’s insight has been that unabashedly attacking and obstructing law enforcement in plain view makes it seem less shady, reverse-reinforcing his original claim that efforts to ferret out the wrongdoing he does want concealed are illegitimate.
Trump just pardoned a string of white-collar criminals and political allies, claiming they were unfairly prosecuted by the “same people” who investigated him. This reportedly came not after a serious procedural vetting of their prosecutions, but after recommendations from friends, celebrities and campaign donors.
Trump didn’t hide this. Here again the public and unabashed declaration of the power to confer impunity on the guilty — to declare the guilty innocent simply because they were investigated for wrongdoing just as he was, meaning he is one of them — is the whole point of it.
Or take Roger Stone. Trump openly attacked prosecutors’ initial sentencing recommendation for his longtime confidant, making Barr’s reversal of it look like a response to Trump’s political interference. Barr demanded Trump refrain from more interference, to avoid such appearances.
Trump responded by openly celebrating Barr’s decision to reverse the Stone recommendation at his direction. He has continued publicly attacking the whole process surrounding the case, justifying this by claiming he is the “chief law enforcement officer” of the United States and as such is “allowed to be totally involved.”
Trump is appropriating for himself the power to render any effort by our system to parcel out justice to his cronies to be illegitimate simply by declaring it so. The public flaunting of this power — the power to corrupt, while pretending to be doing the opposite — is a key feature of it.
Trump’s own officials say this will continue. He sees it as a political plus for him.
Trump’s radical corruption, explained
In their excellent new book on the institution of the presidency, Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes argue that all of this amounts to the realization of an actual presidential vision for federal law enforcement that departs from the one that reigned for many decades.
As they write, that older vision was based on a norm, which was obviously not always honored, that dictated the following: “Law enforcement does not serve the will of those in power.”
Trump is erasing this principle, while illustrating there are no penalties for doing so:
Perhaps most important of all is Trump’s simple demonstration of the idea that a president can involve himself in specific law enforcement decisions and not face immediate and catastrophic political consequences. If the next president decides that she too wants to jettison the FBI director and pick her own, Congress will be hard-pressed to object. Trump has put on the table a radical departure from the orthodox understanding of the proper role of the president’s political preferences in law enforcement investigations and prosecutorial decisions. Whether Trump’s conduct ultimately reinforces the orthodox understanding, erodes it, or upends it entirely will be largely a function of the extent to which the political system tolerates or punishes him for it.
This imposes an obligation on the rest of us. As Jeffrey Tulis writes, the depths of Trump’s corruption simply require the Democratic presidential candidates to step up their efforts to use their current media exposure to draw public attention to it. The Democratic House must fully exercise its institutional oversight powers to further expose it.
This is imperative, Tulis notes, precisely because Trump “has been so successful in normalizing” his corruption and “in coopting his party to enable it.”
Crucial to this mission has been the very public nature of this corruption. And while Barr might be cynically pretending otherwise, it’s only going to get worse — and more public — from here on out.