As President Trump threatens to reshape the Justice Department’s leadership and demolish its tradition of independence from politics, department alums are fighting back with increasing vigor — signing petitions, holding public events and taking direct aim at a man they fear will do lasting damage.
On Thursday, Trump suggested in a television interview he might increase his involvement with the Justice Department, which is exploring the conduct of his personal lawyer and overseeing the special counsel investigation into whether his election campaign coordinated with Russia.
Justice Department alums and legal observers already had been critical of the president for allegedly trying to exert influence over the agency in inappropriate ways, including by asking the FBI to let go of an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The president, though, has ignored their pleas to back off, asserting repeatedly that federal law enforcement leaders are out to get him.
“You look at the corruption at the top of the FBI; it’s a disgrace, and our Justice Department — which I try to stay away from, but at some point, I won’t — our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia,” Trump told Fox & Friends.
Justice Department alums fear the president is laying groundwork to fire the attorney general, deputy attorney general or special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in an effort to end investigations that might affect him personally. Trump says he’s the subject of a “witch hunt.”
But his attacks also might have significant consequences, undermining public faith in the Justice Department, the FBI and the force of the law, said John Bellinger, a former Justice Department official who more recently worked as a legal adviser to the State Department and National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.
“My real concern is that this will do long-term damage to the perception of independence of the Department of Justice and of the FBI, with at least some group of people, and that that might not ever be retained,” Bellinger said.
Trump’s latest complaints were familiar and wide ranging. In the Fox & Friends interview, he raged about the number of Democrats on Mueller’s team, and the political donations a Hillary Clinton-ally made to the wife of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. He accused former FBI director James B. Comey of lying and leaking classified information in memos he provided to his lawyers detailing interactions with Trump.
Comey, who as FBI director had the authority to classify information, has said none of the memos were classified when he created them, though the FBI later deemed some of the information was.
Trump’s raging has generated little public pushback from those leading the Justice Department now. On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a congressional hearing that he shared some of the president’s frustrations, and noted that FBI leadership has changed since Trump took office.
Pressed on why he had so far refused to appoint a second special counsel to investigate a host of GOP concerns, many of them having to do with Hillary Clinton, Sessions responded, “I do not think we need to willy nilly appoint special counsels, and as we can see, it can really take on a life of its own” — taking what seemed to be a swipe at Mueller.
Sessions said he sympathized with Trump’s frustration about matters that have distracted from his agenda and suggested Mueller’s probe “needs to conclude.”
“Look, I think the American people are concerned, and the president is concerned,” Sessions said. “He’s dealing with France and North Korea and Syria and taxes and regulations and border and crime, every day, and I wish — this thing needs to conclude.”
It was unclear from the exchange what “thing” he was referring to, though a Justice Department spokeswoman said later, “I’d imagine he was saying that it’s in the public interest to have the special counsel’s investigation concluded as soon as possible.”
Outside the Justice Department, the concern has been more palpable. At Georgetown Law School on Thursday, a group of former Justice officials from both political parties held an event called “Democracy in the Balance,” where they warned of how Trump is violating long-held norms.
Former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, who emceed the event, said it was a way of “planting a flag and making it clear that these institutions are important and that what’s happening now is not normal.” Trump famously fired Yates, an Obama appointee, as acting attorney general after she refused to defend the first version of his travel ban.
“That’s one of the risks, I think, that we face in all of this, is that with a daily onslaught, after a while people stop feeling outraged by it, and it starts becoming more and more normal,” Yates said in an interview.
As of Thursday, more than 900 former Justice employees had signed an open letter calling on Congress to “swiftly and forcefully respond to protect the founding principles of our Republic and the rule of law” if Trump were to move on Mueller or other Justice Department officials. Trump has long raged about Sessions recusing himself from the investigation that Mueller now leads. Those inside the Justice Department have been on edge since the FBI earlier this month raided the home, office and hotel room of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Former Justice officials often speak out about issues important to them, but the volume and forcefulness with which many are criticizing Trump is notable.
Comey, who is in the midst of a media tour to promote a new book, has repeatedly compared Trump to a crime boss and his presidency to a forest fire. Yates said in an interview this week that the president’s attacks on the Justice Department are “beyond unprecedented,” and that voters should take them into account in deciding whether he should be reelected in 2020.
The Justice Department is part of the executive branch, and it is not inappropriate for the president to work with his attorney general on promoting broad policy goals. Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, said at the Georgetown event that Trump has “extraordinary theoretical powers to control prosecutions,” though since Watergate, presidents have by tradition steered clear of putting their thumb on the scale in such matters.
Trump, Goldsmith said, seemed to be “indifferent to those norms” — though his efforts so far had been largely ineffective.
Of particular concern to some is that Trump has suggested his foes, such as Comey and top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, should not just be investigated, but jailed.
“That is not okay,” Comey said on CNN Wednesday. “This is the United States of America.”
Former Justice Department officials critical of Trump have stopped short of calling for the president to be removed from office by impeachment. So far, their pleas have mostly been that voters and legislators take notice. Bellinger said he hoped that more Republicans who held senior Justice Department positions, in particular, would join the chorus of voices defending the agency.
Trump campaigned on a promise of shaking up Washington, and he reiterated that on Thursday.
“I’m fighting a battle against a horrible group of deep-seated people — drain the swamp — that are coming up with all sorts of phony charges against me, and they’re not bringing up real charges against the other side,” he said.
Yates said that while voters might have rightly expected Trump to bring significant policy changes, “I think what you don’t expect and what’s a lot more dangerous to us as a country is this all-out assault on institutions and norms that are really essential to our democracy.”