Allegations abound that President Donald Trump has sought to obstruct justice. The U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating and may conclude that greater crimes can be prosecuted — crimes explicitly related to the abuse of power.
If Mr. Mueller builds this case, then it will be for the U.S. Congress to launch impeachment proceedings. Congressional committees are pursuing their own investigations now.
With ruthless determination President Trump is systematically undermining the U.S. law enforcement authorities that could check the abuse of power for personal gain by him and his associates in the White House.
Public prosecutors have been fired and not replaced. Increasing numbers of vacancies in offices of U.S. Inspectors-Generals are not being filled and budgets for these offices are being cut.
Top U.S. Justice Department officials have been dismissed. The White House has hired former lobbyists, given them waivers exempting conflict-of-interest rules and fought the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) about revealing the waivers.
The President has publicly derided judges who do not share his views. Taken together these are actions seen only in authoritarian regimes.
One important facet of President Trump’s approach is that he is demanding that top law enforcement officers explicitly demonstrate their allegiance to him. If they respond that on assuming their positions they swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution, then that is not good enough for Trump.
Former FBI Director James Comey says that Trump asked him to both confirm that the President was not under investigation, and that he state his full loyalty to the President. Comey refused, and was fired.
Acting Attorney-General Sally Yates at the Justice Department was fired directly after challenging the legality of President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from eight Muslim countries.
President Trump invited U.S. Public Prosecutor Preet Bharara in New York just for a chat at Trump Tower in December and thereafter telephoned him several times just for a general conversation.
Bharara was increasingly uncomfortable about what he felt was an effort to undermine his independence. Before returning yet another call from the president, Bharara informed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he felt it inappropriate to return the call from the President. Bharara was fired the next day.
A considerable number of vacancies in offices of public prosecutors were waiting to be filled by the Trump Administration earlier this year. Then, in early March, the Attorney General fired 46 more public prosecutors, all of whom had been appointed in the course of the eight years that President Obama held office.
A few weeks ago, the White House sent the names of 12 lawyers to the U.S. Senate for confirmation as public prosecutors, noting: “These candidates share the president’s vision for ‘Making America Safe Again.”
The New York Times recently reported that: “Today nearly one-quarter of inspector general offices have either an acting director or no director at all, including the offices at the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration.
Acting directors can be reluctant to make extensive changes or take bold action, particularly if they hope to be nominated for a permanent appointment.”
Every U.S. Federal government department has an inspector general authorized to investigate waste, abuse, corruption and other illegality.
These officers play invaluable watchdog roles. Within each government department these are the people who serve as the single most powerful check on abuse of office by all government employees, including those in top positions appointed by the president.
Waivers for lobbyists
Meanwhile, the President who campaigned to “clean the swamp” of lobbyists and special interest lawyers and consultants in government, has been waging a battle with the OGE.
To guard against conflicts of interest, presidents should not appoint former paid consultants to public offices where they may deal with issues that relate to those private interests that previously hired them to lobby on their behalf.
Exceptions can be made when the President grants a special waiver, which ever since the aftermath of the Watergate scandal 39 years ago have been reported to the OGE.
Over many weeks the OGE and the White House exchanged letters about this issue as the President was granting increasing numbers of waivers.
At one point, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Trump Administration’s Office of Management and Budget, questioned OGE’s legal authority and requested that it suspend its collection of waiver information.
Finally, at the end of May the White House grandly stated it was making a concession and making waiver information public. It said it had granted ethics waivers to 17 appointees who work for President Trump and Vice President Pence.
The Obama Administration issued exactly the same number of similar waivers over its entire eight-year term of office.
Family conflicts of interest
It is far from clear that those official White House appointees, Trump daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, are in full compliance with conflict-of-interest ethics rules as both of them continue to have significant financial interests in their former businesses.
Kushner’s financial dealings are part of the investigation now being pursued by Special Counsel Mueller.
And so, totally in line with the overall effort to undermine law enforcement, friends of President Trump have recently taken to television shows to denigrate Mueller, question his own possible conflicts of interest and float the possibility that he too might be fired by Trump.
In fact, Mueller could only be fired by Deputy Justice Department Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who was appointed to office by Trump only a couple of months ago, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from anything to do with Mueller’s investigation as he may be one of its targets.
And so, true to character, Trump issued a Tweet recently suggesting that Rosenstein may have to go.
Trump’s denigration of law enforcement, as well as U.S. intelligence services, is also moving into a higher rhetorical gear as the President has hired several prominent private lawyers as his personal advocates. They are stoking the fires that the President is the victim of a “witch hunt.”
All the actions noted above are not isolated and spontaneous – they are part of a Trump strategy to bend the law to serve his own purposes. Keep watching as the strategy continues to unfold.