During his Senate impeachment trial, Democrats repeatedly asserted that President Trump is “not above the law.” But since his acquittal two weeks ago, analysts say, the president has taken a series of steps aimed at showing that, essentially, he is the law.
Trump defended his actions, saying he has the right to shape the country’s legal systems as he sees fit.
“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters as he left Washington on Tuesday for a trip to California, Nevada and Arizona. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I’ve chosen not to be involved.”
The president’s post-impeachment behavior has alarmed Attorney General William P. Barr, who has told people close to the president that he is willing to quit unless Trump stops publicly commenting on ongoing criminal matters, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. It also has appalled several legal experts and former officials, who have said his direct intervention in legal matters risks further politicizing law enforcement at a time of fraying confidence in the Justice Department.
More than 2,000 former Justice Department employees signed a public letter this week objecting to Trump’s public intervention in the case of his longtime friend Roger Stone, and urging Barr to resign. The head of the Federal Judges Association has called an emergency meeting to address growing concerns about political interference in the Stone case. And four prosecutors resigned from the case last week after Trump publicly decried their recommended prison sentence of seven to nine years for Stone and the Justice Department reversed course to lobby for a lower sentence.
A jury convicted Stone last year of lying to Congress and obstruction in a case that Trump has repeatedly condemned as unfair while leaving open the prospect of issuing a pardon for his friend and political ally.
Carmen Ortiz, the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts under President Barack Obama, was among the signatories on the letter condemning Trump’s political interference in legal matters.
“I’ve worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” she said, “and I’ve just never seen behavior like what were seeing right now.”
Trump added to the sense of legal disarray Tuesday by granting executive clemency to a group of 11 people that included several political allies and others convicted of corruption, lying and fraud. Among the recipients of Trump’s largesse was Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 related to trying to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat. His sentence was commuted. Financier Michael Milken, who was charged with insider trading in the 1980s, and Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner jailed on eight felony charges, including tax fraud, were pardoned.
Trump said the pardons and commutations were based on “the recommendations of people that know them,” including Blagojevich’s wife, Patricia, who made a direct appeal to the president on Fox News.
Legal experts said that by relying on his personal connections rather than the Justice Department’s established review process for finding convicts deserving of clemency, Trump risked politicizing his pardon power.
“It’s a clemency process for the well-connected, and that’s it,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor and clemency expert at the New York University School of Law. “Trump is wielding the power the way you would expect the leader of a banana republic who wants to reward his friends and cronies.”
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s comments about the Stone case have caused the most concern. Trump has singled out the judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, for personal attacks, accusing her of bias and spreading a falsehood about her record. He has amplified Stone’s request for a new trial, accusing a member of the jury of being politically biased against him.
Though Barr has warned that the president’s unbridled commentary about ongoing criminal cases was making it “impossible for me to do my job,” Trump continued to express his views about legal matters Tuesday.
Trump told reporters that he partially agreed with Barr, acknowledging that his tweets do make the attorney general’s job more difficult. But he said he would continue tweeting nonetheless.
“Social media, for me, has been very important because it gives me a voice,” Trump said.
And he has made a direct connection between his own legal travails and those of Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress about his attempts to get details from Hillary Clinton’s private emails from the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
Trump’s increasingly provocative comments raised the prospect that he might issue pardons for Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Since his impeachment acquittal, Trump has tried to portray the prosecutions of his allies as the illegitimate product of an illegitimate investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 race.
Prosecutions stemming from the Mueller investigation are “badly tainted,” Trump tweeted Tuesday, and “should be thrown out.”
“If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place,” Trump wrote. “BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”
After learning that federal judges would be holding an emergency discussion about his intervention in legal cases, Trump tweeted that they should instead discuss the alleged shortcomings of the Mueller probe.
Trump’s constant commentary and increasing willingness to flout traditional legal processes signal that the president feels emboldened and unrestrained after Republicans voted almost unanimously to acquit him on impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff.
“It shows that Susan Collins was right — Trump has learned a lesson,” Whipple said, referring to a prediction by the Republican senator from Maine that Trump would be more cautious after impeachment. “The lesson he learned is that he’s unaccountable. He can do whatever he wants now with impunity.”
While some Republicans spoke out against Trump’s commutation for Blagojevich, the reaction from GOP lawmakers Tuesday was mostly muted. And there’s little to indicate that pardons for Stone or Flynn would lead to a significant Republican backlash.
Whipple said the president’s decision to pardon several of his political allies just before Stone is scheduled to be sentenced set the stage for an increasingly “dangerous” phase of Trump’s presidency.
“This is a president who thinks the law exists to be circumvented,” he said.
The next test of Trump’s willingness to intervene in the legal process could come as soon as Thursday, when Stone is set to be sentenced by Jackson. Asked Tuesday if he would issue a pardon for Stone, Trump demurred.
“I haven’t given it any thought. In the meantime, he’s going through a process,” Trump said. “But I think he’s been treated very unfairly.”
Fred Barbash, Mark Berman, Carol D. Leonnig and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.