President Trump took his criticism of the criminal justice system to new heights Thursday, prompting alarm from national security and law enforcement officials who fear the president is seeking to protect himself from encroaching investigations at the expense of lasting damage to institutions.
In a “Fox & Friends” interview aired Thursday, Trump argued it “almost ought to be illegal” for “flippers” to get plea deals in exchange for testimony — a reference to his former attorney, Michael Cohen, who implicated Trump this week in a scheme to cover up alleged affairs before the 2016 election. The president also lashed out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not “taking over” the Justice Department and praised his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was convicted of eight felonies by a federal jury in Alexandria, Va., this week.
The sense of crisis was amplified by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said in a Thursday interview with The Washington Post that the president had asked his legal team weeks ago for advice on pardoning Manafort and others facing investigation.
The barrage came on top of the president’s escalating attacks in recent weeks on the Justice Department and Sessions — who has angered Trump by recusing himself from the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election — and his moves toward stripping security clearances from those both inside and outside the government who anger him.
Taken together, critics said, the president’s actions demonstrate his shifting, inconsistent principles when it comes to law enforcement and suggest a dangerous lack of understanding about the criminal justice system that is likely to have repercussions well beyond the White House.
“When people at the top show contempt for law and contempt for the legal process, that’s bound to trickle down,” said Pamela Karlan, a Stanford University law professor.
In recent months, Republicans have increasingly lost confidence in the Justice Department and the FBI. One lawmaker accused of crimes, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), has modeled his response on Trump’s, describing Justice as “the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement” this week after he and his wife were charged with spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on family vacations and other personal expenses.
In the interview with “Fox & Friends,” which was recorded Wednesday and aired in full Thursday morning, Trump decried the long-established practice of “flipping,” in which a person accused of a crime is offered leniency by prosecutors in exchange for becoming a cooperating witness.
The practice is one of the most powerful tools investigators use to dismantle secretive, insular criminal organizations, including gangs, and to uncover other crimes. Advisers said Trump’s remarks were largely out of pique with Cohen.
“For 30, 40 years I’ve been watching flippers,” Trump told Fox News Channel’s Ainsley Earhardt. He added: “It almost ought to be outlawed.”
The remarks drew rebukes from both Democrats and Republicans, including Giuliani.
“When it’s done right, it’s fine,” Giuliani said, noting that prosecutors offer witnesses leniency for their cooperation in criminal probes and that it’s a valuable tool for getting to the truth if they do it properly.
“It’s one of the tools prosecutors use,” he added. “Then it gets tested by a jury. You can’t stop that.”
Alberto R. Gonzales, who was attorney general under President George W. Bush, and Neal Katyal, solicitor general under President Barack Obama, both said it was a necessary tool.
“If President Trump’s views were the law, literally thousands of criminals would be on the street today,” Katyal wrote in an email.
“You know, campaign violations are considered not a big deal, frankly,” Trump said, arguing that “almost everybody that runs for office” has done something similar.
At another point he said the crimes that Cohen pleaded guilty to “are not even crimes.”
As he has done for months, Trump also mocked his own Justice Department — “I always put ‘Justice’ now with quotes,” he said — and escalated a feud with Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia probe being led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“Jeff Sessions recused himself, which he shouldn’t have done, or he should have told me,” Trump said in the Fox interview. “What kind of man is this?”
That led to an extraordinary statement of defense Thursday from the attorney general, which displeased the president, West Wing officials said.
“I fear the continued battering of the attorney general almost makes it like commonplace, something to be expected between a president and his attorney general,” said Gonzales, who was forced to resign as attorney general in 2007 following a political uproar over the firing of U.S. attorneys. “It does undermine the credibility of the attorney general. If we ever got to a place where it was routine or common for the president to question the judgment of the attorney general, that would not be a good place.”
Trump’s consideration of pardons, while he praises associates who don’t cooperate with investigations and help those who praise him, also could have a chilling effect, law enforcement officials said. Without consulting Justice officials, the president previously pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the immigration hard-liner convicted of criminal contempt of court, and conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws.
White House aides have grown increasingly concerned that Trump will pardon Manafort and are moving to stop it.
“To suggest Manafort was brave for not making a deal and going to trial in the face of what the president thinks are unfair charges is astonishing when it’s the executive branch that is doing this,” said Mary McCord, a former longtime national security prosecutor at Justice. “Does he realize it’s his Justice Department?”
But the president’s defenders say Trump’s frustration comes from investigations he views as unfounded and dominated by Democrats seeking to undermine him.
Trump has told close advisers he sees the Russia probe and related investigations as a political issue for him and that he needs Republicans to stick close no matter what Mueller finds. He says his frequent “witch hunt!” tweets are sinking into the public vernacular.
Trump has encouraged aides to argue that the special counsel’s probe is supposed to be about alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia — and to assert that evidence of such cooperation has not been found.
“It will end with a whimper, not a bang,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor who often defends Trump and says he agrees with many of Trump’s critiques that Justice has overreached in the investigation.
Mueller’s probe has so far led to seven convictions, including Manafort’s, as well as more than two dozen indictments.
Advisers acknowledged that this week marked a notable escalation of Trump’s fight with Justice and said his anger is likely to increase as he watches the probe continue to expand.
The president has been warned in the past about the risks of his combative posture, advisers said. Chief White House counsel Donald McGahn told the president on a number of occasions early in the administration that he could not call Justice and give orders. Then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus became so concerned about Trump’s push to oust Sessions in July 2017 that he took detailed notes and worked to stop Trump from doing it.
“The president has not a whit of respect for institutions, whether it’s the DOJ or the Fed or the FBI,” said one former senior administration official. “If you are a threat to him, he is going to try to kill you.”
Trump, officials say, is not changing and does not see his conduct as problematic.
Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was fired by Trump, said the president has “turned the concept of the rule of law upside down.” On the one hand, Trump talks about tough law enforcement tactics when it comes to going after gangs such as MS-13. On the other hand, Bharara said, the president “preaches nothing but softness when it comes anything that touches people close to him.”
“I’m a tough guy, tough guy, tough guy, but anyone who tries to use that approach with my people is out of line,” Bharara said, referring to Trump’s philosophy.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was part of the team that convicted Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, described Trump’s statements about the criminal justice system as “the modern-day version of a particularly inarticulate mobster.”
“If you remove all the lies, there’s nothing left,” Cotter said.
Carol D. Leonnig and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.