Friday, February 14, 2020

Trump Taking Revenge on Rule of Law

      President Trump is taking his revenge for his impeachment on witnesses in the proceedings and, more ominously, on the rule of law itself. Trump came under withering criticism this week [Feb. 12-13], except from complaisant Republican senators, for intervening by tweet in the criminal case against his convicted-felon friend and confidant, Roger Stone.
      Stone, it will be recalled, was convicted on Nov. 15, 2019, of seven felony counts for lying to congressional investigators and obstructing the congressional investigation into the Trump campaign's involvement with the Wikileaks disclosures of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign. Trump denounced the verdict at the time and stepped up his intervention in the case with an early-morning tweet [Feb. 12] after the career prosecutors in the case recommended a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Stone under federal sentencing guidelines.
      Trump called the recommended sentence "horrible and very unfair" and added, without specifying a course of action, "cannot allow this miscarriage of justice." With the tweet reverberating through Washington, Trump later clarified to reporters that he had not spoken directly with his attorney general, William Barr, or anyone else at the Department of Justice about the sentencing.
      Even without direct communication, however, senior DOJ officials overruled the prosecutors' recommendation within the day and substituted a new sentencing memorandum with no specific recommendation for the judge on the prison term for the septuagenarian Stone. The career prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office in Washington responded that day by withdrawing from the case; one went further by resigning from the Justice Department altogether.
      Former federal officials and prosecutors were among the many legal experts who denounced what the New York Times called in its news story the "extraordinary decision" to overrule the prosecutors who had handled the case. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official, went beyond "extraordinary" to call the decision "deeply troubling" and "alarming."
      Rosenberg added praise for what he called the "principled resignations" by the prosecutors in the case. "We all understand that the leadership of the department is politically appointed," he wrote, "but being asked by that leadership to allow politics to corrode our work is not remotely normal or permissible."
      On Capitol Hill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, told reporters he had no concerns about Trump's tweet because Stone's sentence was ultimately up to the judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson. Leaving no stone unturned, Trump followed the next day with a tweet attacking Jackson, wrongly, for having put his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in "solitary confinement" after Manafort's August 2018 conviction for eight counts of financial fraud.
      Trump's tweets, combined with the firing of two of the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, eliminated any lingering thoughts that he might have been chastened by the experience of having been impeached by the House of Representatives for abuse of office and obstruction of Congress. Following the Senate's acquittal, Maine's independent-minded Republican senator, Susan Collins, went so far as to "predict" that Trump would "learn his lesson" from the episode.
      The tweets prompted different assessments from Democrats of what Trump had taken away from his experience. "He learned that he could get away with corrupting his office without any consequences," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in an appearance on CNN.
      Trump himself emphasized for any who asked that he was unchastened by the experience. At the White House, he answered reporters' questions by saying that he had learned "that the Democrats are crooked." Later, in a telephone call to Fox and Friends on Thursday [Feb. 13], Trump repeated his grandiose view of presidential power. "This is my country and I will do as I please," Trump declared, with no contradiction from the Fox News hosts.
      Congressional Democrats were predictably outraged by Trump's intervention in Stone's case while Republicans on Capitol Hill turned away from reporters' questions or mumbled meaninglessly. Adam Schiff, the House's lead impeachment manager, complained in a tweet that Trump "urges lighter sentences and dangles pardons" for "those who were convicted of lying to cover up his crimes" and "retaliates against witnesses and public servants." Meanwhile, Schiff concluded, "Republicans' response? Silence."
      By week's end, however, Trump drew mild criticism for his tweet from a seemingly unlikely source: Barr himself. In an interview with ABC's Pierre Thomas on Thursday [Feb. 13], Barr maintained that he had already intervened to change the sentencing recommendation in Stone's case before Trump's tweet. Barr said he had met with U.S. attorney Timothy Shea, his former aide, on Monday and understood Shea to have agreed to change the recommendation.
      Barr called Trump's subsequent tweet "disruptive" and complained that the president's tweets "make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity." Barr's protestation did little to mollify critics, however, who charged him with politicizing the department by, among other steps, agreeing to investigate any information that Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani turned up in Ukraine about the Bidens.
      Barr said he had no concerns about the mild pushback against Trump, but the president's actions earlier sent clear signals that anyone who crossed him did so at his peril. Trump fired his own ambassador, Gordon Sondland, the week before [Feb. 7] and followed the same day with high-profile revenge against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council aide who provided damning testimony about Trump's motives in the Ukraine episode. Vindman was fired and summarily escorted out of the White House with no time for farewells. Adding injury to insult, Trump even suggested that the military might want to consider disciplinary charges against Vindman.

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