Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 14, 2020
The trouble with abusers of all sort, of course, is that they will not stop, despite remarks from would-be friends.
As we are seeing again this week, this includes Donald Trump’s abuse of Oval Office powers, despite pleas from his former chief of staff and attorney general. As with abusers of all sort, Trump sees nothing wrong — once again — with actions that step into a live federal criminal court case to try to influence the outcome on behalf of a friend, that attack the judge in the case, that wink-wink prompt rather than order the Justice Department into forthrightly declaring itself a political animal.
By any logic, Trump supporters should be joining with critics in this abusive cross into using the legal and justice systems on behalf of political friends. After all, this is exactly the kind of thinking that Trump himself has used in describing investigations by the same Justice Department as political witch hunts aimed at him, his family, his circle, his businesses or his campaign.
That is exactly the argument, for example, behind the desire to reopen charges that the FBI screwed up in seeking specialized FISA-court warrants to be able to surveil communications from overseas with Trump campaign associate Carter Page. Trump argues evidence that the FBI made mistakes that resulted in using federal agencies in a political case — however justified, however already investigated.
But ask Republicans and mostly all you hear is crickets.
The judge in the criminal trial of Trump campaign ally Roger Stone can easily put an end to the attempt by Trump, through Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, by merely affirming the original sentencing recommendations of the four prosecutors who have now bowed out of the case in protest of Team Trump’s efforts to reduce the sentence. For the record, Barr had an interview yesterday in which he said Trump should not be commenting on current cases; but given the skeptics out there, it was received as a had-to-do to keep peace inside the Justice Department.
Let’s step back here: Stone has been convicted — by a jury — of seven federal crimes, including witness tampering, obstruction of justice, lying to Congress, and actions related to liaising with WikiLeaks to publish damaging emails about 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In other words, Stone carried out dirty campaign tricks for Trump.
Post impeachment, Trump wants all reports of bad behavior by his team not only set aside, but erased entirely. Once again, where are Congressional Republicans? Why is Trump not focused on eliminating the stench of wrongdoing, and focused only on those who did their jobs by meeting required subpoenas to share their version of truth?
The Justice Department’s own sentencing guidelines call for a recommendation of 7–9 years, not the statutory 50 that the individual convictions could total. A day after Trump tweeted his unhappiness with that result, Barr’s staff rewrote the recommendation to lighten it without a specific recommendation, citing Stone’s age, but offering no rationale. That recommendation had required endorsement by supervisors, so this was no accident.
The four prosecutors resigned over the outrage of White House interference with an supposedly independent Justice Department.
The judge, Amy Berman Jackson, should squash the effort and stick with the original recommendation. Trump, of course, has attacked her in tweets as well — wrongly, in fact, since he accused her of putting former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort in solitary confinement, a decision taken, of course, by the Bureau of Prisons, not the trial judge.
As The Washington Post editorialized, “The most important role of the attorney general is to protect the department from improper political influence, including from the president. Mr. Barr should have ensured that Mr. Stone’s case was handled with strict professionalism, as the career prosecutors sought to do, and shielded them from White House pressure, direct or indirect. To all appearances, he did the opposite.”
Trump targeted Mueller himself as lying to Congress, based on exactly zero.
Those who speculate endlessly smell a presidential pardon in the making, along with possible pardons for former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, and for Manafort, who was found guilty and imprisoned for bank fraud and other financial crimes.
Legal experts and former Justice Department employees say they are appalled by Trump’s overreach. Trump himself insists he is showing restraint, but Constitutionally certainly can do whatever he wants with Justice cases.
What interests me here are two things: This renewed revenge-oriented presidential entry into formerly independent Justice areas is not only dangerous by itself, but it was predictable from the Republican Senate majority’s handling or non-handling of impeachment processes. And it is not going to end. That is disturbing.
Republican senators who voted to acquit Trump, including Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, Cory Gardener, Martha McSally and Thom Tilles, arguing that Trump had learned some restraint through the impeachment process, need to acknowledge that the only thing Trump learned was that he can, in fact, commit more abuse of office.
The U.S. attorney in Washington is Jessie Liu; her office oversees the Stone case as it did the Manafort case, as whatever remained of the Robert Mueller investigation of all-things-Russia. Her office also has overseen the decision not to proceed with criminal charges against former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe Jr., a Trump target for launching the investigation that became the Mueller probe.
As it turned out, Liu was being nominated by Trump to serve as the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, a top position overseeing economic sanctions.
Now comes word that the nomination is being withdrawn and that Liu is being replaced by a lawyer directly from the staff of Attorney General Barr, and that she has resigned from Treasury.
Meanwhile, two Senate Republican-majority committees insist on investigating Joe Biden and any supposed corruption in Ukraine involving his son, Hunter, despite lack of any evidence other than Biden still being a Trump challenger; Sen. Lindsey Graham has committee has committed to outing a whistleblower and seeking the same FISA court procedures already investigated; Trump is still looking for federal staffers, including Office of Budget and Management officials, to dismiss for speaking up in challenge to his rogue campaign to out Biden in the Ukraine.
Trump also threatened more retribution against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman through the supposedly independent military, suggesting that the military should consider disciplining Vindman, a witness in the impeachment proceedings.
These are vengeful acts by an unrestrained Trump. They definitely reflect a heightened campaign to destroy would-be enemies. They may be within the legal powers of the presidency, but they are pushing on abuse of office.
Pursuit of politics and pursuit of law are supposed to run on different tracks. Mixing these is dangerous for the country, for sure, but also a guarantor that we are digging a deeper divide.