The Department of Justice overrode a sentencing recommendation by its frontline prosecutors. The defendant was the politically connected and presidential friend Roger Stone. The four prosecutors resigned from the case as a result.
The Department of Justice (finally) said that it would not prosecute an FBI agent involved in the Russian investigation even though the president has asserted, without giving supporting evidence, that Andrew McCabe should be prosecuted.
The Attorney General has appointed a special counsel for the confessed criminal and politically connected Michael Flynn, who is awaiting sentence. Reports indicate that other criminals who are connected to the president may be in line for preferential treatment.
Attorney General William Barr claims that the president has never told him how to handle any case, and Barr has said that it is impossible for him to do his job when the president tweets about individual Department of Justice cases. This complaint comes as a shock since Barr may believe in one-person (probably one-man rule) at least as much as the president does.
Trump in response tweets that he has not interfered but that he has the absolute right to order how criminal cases should be handled. He is the chief law enforcement officer, he pronounces.
An open letter signed by almost two thousand former prosecutors and Department of Justice officials say that Barr should resign. Bill Barr has not.
Swamp creatures are pardoned and set free. Others are pardoned whose supporters have connections with the president. And now we wait to see if the sentenced, frog-like Stone will be able to bound back to his bog without prison for his crimes against America. Ribbit. Ribbit.
Just another week in the modern United States. It is hard to assess whether all this is a big deal or not because we have all become desensitized to Donald Trump and those around him.
The events highlight, however, how imperfect our government is. It makes us realize that much of our sense of good government depends on norms that have been established over the decades and not on the Constitution itself. The Constitution does not prevent a president from breaking the norms of impartial justice that seem essential to a fair America and thus, does not prevent a president from moving us towards autocracy. And the events, rather predictably, also bring misleading or ignorant statements by kneejerk defenders of whatever the president does.
More than a few “distinguished” commentators and hosts on Fox News say that William Barr must follow the president’s directions “because the Attorney General works for the president.” Another objecting to a headline from a news organization said that “Bill Barr can’t ‘intervene’ in a Department of Justice matter because the prosecutors work for the Attorney General.” Such statements, both wrong about who employs Justice Department officials, indicate how far along the path of the cult of personality we have traveled.
Our federal government is complicated, but one thing is clear: Our chief executive is not the equivalent of the chief executive of a family business. An Attorney General and other federal officials do not work for the president. He does not pay them, and no one in the government openly pledges fealty to the president. To take office, an attorney general and other federal officials must vow: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office. So help me God.”
The Attorney General is supposed to work for all of us (we do pay his salary after all), not for the president alone. The lines of authority, however, are muddled. The president does have a power akin to an employer; he can remove an attorney general. Furthermore, since the president has been given the constitutional duty to “take Care the Laws be faithfully executed. . . .” he can set the priorities and policies for the Department of Justice and the Attorney General. There has been an established norm that a president should not dictate how a particular case must be handled, but the president has the constitutional authority to break that norm. Of course, if what is commanded is unconstitutional, the AG cannot–consistent with the oath of office–carry out the command, but if the directive is only unwise, the AG can be expected to be removed if she does not comply with the presidential wishes.
The president can then seek a new attorney general, but that also is complicated. The Constitution does not give the president the power to appoint any Attorney General he wants. Instead, it says that the president “shall nominate” candidates to be federal officials, but the Constitution goes on to say, “and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” the Attorney General and other federal officials. The appointment power is a joint one of the president and the Senate. The Constitution does not constrain the Senate in how it should use its power. It is only a norm or a convention that the Senate gives great deference to the presidential nominations. Nevertheless, the Senate has the right, for any reason it finds sufficient, to reject a particular person as Attorney General.
(Concluded February 24)