Rather, the real driver here is that Trump is removing officials who committed the sin of trying to defend the rule of law from his efforts to corrupt it. This is forward-looking: It clears the way for more such corruption of the rule of law and sends a message to others about what awaits them if they stand in the way of this as it continues to devolve.
Two new reports about Trump’s ongoing purge underscore this with great clarity.
First, Axios reports that in the view of Trump’s aides, the president has “crossed a psychological line” regarding the “deep state.” He has concluded multiple agencies are filled with “snakes,” and he wants them rooted out.
Among these snakes: Jessie Liu, the previous U.S. attorney in Washington who recently saw her nomination for a post at the Treasury Department yanked by Trump amid criticism of her handling of cases involving the special counsel investigation.
Trump was angered by a memo, written by an outside ally, that detailed the case against Liu, Axios reports. It listed Liu’s offenses, most conspicuously the failure to prosecute Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who has long enraged Trump for his role in focusing the Russia investigation on Trump.
That Trump was angered by Liu’s failure to prosecute McCabe gains support from a second report, a deep New York Times dive into tensions roiling the Justice Department amid Attorney General William Barr’s intervention on behalf of Trump confidant Roger Stone.
The root of the tensions
These tensions date back to the McCabe case. Prosecutors overseen by Liu concluded McCabe should not be prosecuted (for lying to a government watchdog) because the case was problematic, and because Trump’s attacks on McCabe would make such a prosecution appear as a response to Trump’s command.
McCabe’s prosecutors, reports the Times, were “worried about the appearance of a vindictive prosecution.” Of course, this is precisely what Trump did demand; they wouldn’t carry it out.
After a second set of prosecutors failed to bring a case against McCabe, the Times continues, it led to “difficult conversations” between Liu and Justice Department higher-ups.
This likely means Liu was insulating prosecutors from Trump’s political pressure, and that created tensions with the top. Indeed, when Barr asked Liu to leave earlier than previously scheduled, the Times reports, prosecutors “feared she was ousted because she failed to deliver on a prosecution that Mr. Trump openly sought.”
The Axios memo suggests this is precisely why Liu was yanked from the Treasury job.
All this fed into current tensions. Liu’s replacement, Timothy Shea, clashed with prosecutors over Barr’s insistence on reversing a strict sentencing recommendation for Stone — after Trump raged about the case.
At the core of these tensions, the Times reports, is that prosecutors had come to see Barr as “an agent of the president’s pressure campaigns on law enforcement.”
The prosecutors on the Stone case withdrew in protest. This wasn’t precisely due to Trump’s purge, but the point stands: If Shea (carrying out Barr’s bidding) had wanted to, he could have stood by them. Instead, he allowed them to self-purge — precisely because they objected to Trump’s political interference (via Barr).
As former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller put it:
It isn’t just pathology. It’s corruption.
When Trump demands that the Justice Department do his political bidding and/or rages at it for failing to do so, the press tends to treat this as flowing from an actual belief on Trump’s part: He really thinks a “deep state” cabal is out to get him, and he’s fighting back.
But this is a fundamental error. Trump is raging at officials who constitute an obstacle to his own active, ongoing corruption of the rule of law. And it’s working: The Justice Department actually is carrying out his corrupt bidding in many ways.
Barr actually did work to reduce Stone’s sentencing recommendation. (Even if you think the original recommendation was too strict, this is still not okay, given who Stone is.) Barr actually has opened a direct line to Trump’s private attorney for dirt on Joe Biden. The Justice Department actually did try to help block the whistleblower complaint revealing Trump’s Ukraine shakedown from getting to Congress. Barr actually did badly mislead the country about the special counsel’s findings.
“I don't think most people understand that the norm we've gotten used to of DOJ operating independently from the president is now functionally dead,” Miller told me.
This is the larger context for the purging of Liu, and the department’s refusal to stand up for Stone’s prosecutors. Trump has been very open about all of this: As “chief law enforcement officer," he is “allowed to be totally involved.”
Which is to say, he can abuse law enforcement and the machinery of government for any corrupt purpose he sees fit. The purges are about removing obstacles to this.
When Trump ousted former National Security Council official Alexander Vindman, who had also tried to stand in the way of Trump’s corruption, Donald Trump Jr. explicitly cast this as a message to anyone else who might do the same:
The purges are not just revenge. They are designed to remove people who defend the rule of law against Trump’s very deliberate corruption and degradation of it.
Those are the “snakes” that Trump wants ousted. And we have no idea how much worse it could all get.