President Trump’s attitude toward the criminal justice system has long blended ignorance with contempt for constitutional values. That ugly mixture was on full display after New York suffered its worst terrorist attack since 9/11 and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III unveiled his first indictments.
The president's instinctive reaction to the New York attack was typical Trump bluster. The country must "come up with punishment that's far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting now," he said. "They'll go through court for years. . . . We need quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it's a laughingstock."
Take that in: a U.S. president calling the criminal justice system a "joke" and a "laughingstock." It is a measure of how aberrant this statement is that the only defense the White House press secretary could summon was to deny that the president had actually said those words.
Trump's statement is factually wrong, as a later tweet implicitly conceded. The criminal justice system has consistently meted out severe punishment to convicted terrorists in remarkably short time. Since 9/11, more than 620 individuals have been convicted on terrorism-related charges in civilian courts. "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane in 2001; he pleaded guilty in 2002 and was sentenced to life in prison in 2003. Faisal Shahzad tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010; five months later he was sentenced to life in prison. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planted bombs that killed three people at the Boston Marathon in 2013; two years later he was convicted and sentenced to death. How much quicker and stronger does Trump want?
But Trump's comments are not merely offensive and misguided — they are dangerous. His tweeted demand that the accused truck driver receive the "DEATH PENALTY" for "the horrible crime he committed" can only complicate prosecutors' jobs.
Still, Trump's reaction to the horror in Manhattan looks restrained in comparison with his unhinged fury in the wake of the special counsel indictments. To read Trump's Twitter feed from the moment that the reports of indictments emerged is to witness a man frantic to change the subject. "There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!" Trump tweeted last Sunday.
Trump’s anxiety is understandable; that does not excuse his conduct, which has been both to underscore that he recognizes that it is improper for him as president to order up an investigation of his election opponent — and then to proceed to, in effect, do just that. Will no one rid me of this meddlesome Mueller?
Evidence of recognition came in Trump's interview Thursday with conservative radio host Larry O'Connor: "The saddest thing is . . . I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I'm not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by that. I look at what's happening with the Justice Department, why aren't they going after Hillary Clinton?"
Having identified the line of propriety, Trump then proceeded to cross it, repeatedly. "Major violation of Campaign Finance Laws and Money Laundering — where is our Justice Department?" he tweeted Thursday evening about Donna Brazile's accusations about the Democratic National Committee's pro-Clinton tilt. Friday morning he continued: "Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems." Then, "At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!"
Actually, what the American public deserves is a president who understands the importance of maintaining a Justice Department free from political influence in deciding whom to investigate and prosecute.
It's possible to take a comforting lesson from the two episodes. Federal prosecutors proceeded despite the president's flirtation with sending the accused attacker to Guantanamo Bay. There's no indication that Justice Department officials respond to Trump's rage-tweeting.
And yet, institutions are only as resilient as the people who staff them. Presidential commands — even presidential wishes — are hard to ignore, day after day. That White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly echoed Trump's call for a prosecutor to "get to the bottom of these accusations" against Clinton only adds to the worry.
Our criminal justice system is a treasure, not a laughingstock. At least for now.
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