The president abuses his office and views the Justice Department as a tool to punish his political enemies and give his allies a free pass.
President Trump (right) criticized Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, on Twitter this week.Tom Brenner for The New York Times, and Doug Mills/The New York Times
On Monday, President Trump publicly condemned Attorney General Jeff Sessions (via Twitter, of course) for failing to quash criminal investigations of two of his political allies, both Republican representatives who are under indictment for committing serious crimes. Oddly, what is surprising is not that the president made this statement but that absolutely no one is surprised that he made it.
On the campaign trial, Trump famously said that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and he wouldn’t lose voters. The tweet is the latest and boldest declaration, from his perch on Pennsylvania Avenue, of his and his administration’s corruption — done knowing he could do so without losing the support of Republicans in Congress.
It wasn’t always this way — even a little over a year ago. Remember, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, was appointed just last May in the wake of significant critical public reaction to his firing of James Comey, the F.B.I. director, who reportedly offered no assurances about curtailing the Russia investigation generally or specifically taking it easy on Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.
Since then, Mr. Trump has increasingly obstructed the special counsel’s investigation in plain view, in the process politicizing both the Justice Department and F.B.I. It is no longer news when the president — the head of the executive branch — maligns the F.B.I., calls on the Justice Department to investigate his political enemies or teases pardons to try to influence potential witnesses against him.
There can be little doubt that Mr. Trump views the Justice Department as a tool to punish his political enemies and give his allies a free pass. He has also made it clear that he hates “rats,” praising the felon, Paul Manafort, who once ran his campaign for refusing to “break” by cooperating with law enforcement.
This is our new normal, and congressional Republicans have made it clear through their inaction that they will not remove Mr. Trump from office for obstruction of justice. That matters because the Justice Department has long concluded that a sitting president cannot be indicted (although for many legal scholars, that remains an open question). Mr. Mueller is likely to follow that guidance and submit a report to Congress instead of indicting the president for obstructing justice.
It is hard to imagine 19 Republican Senators voting to convict Mr. Trump for obstructing justice. In itself, that does not mean his presidency will survive until 2020 (or beyond), given the array of legal problems he now faces. After all, just two weeks ago, his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a judge under oath that Mr. Trump directed him to commit crimes. But obstruction appears to be the first existential challenge to the Trump presidency if reports that Mr. Mueller is preparing a report regarding obstruction are accurate.
On the surface, the Senate’s refusal to remove the president from office for obstructing justice does nothing to counteract the other legal problems that he faces, such as the investigation of Mr. Cohen that resulted in immunity for Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer.
Despite Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and threats to impede the Mueller investigation, warnings from his team that his acts could create liability for him seem at times to have restrained the president. For example, Mr. Trump reportedly did not carry out his plans to fire Mr. Mueller in the face of pushback from Don McGahn, the White House counsel. More recently, the president did fire Mr. McGahn 11 days after reports emerged that the White House counsel had cooperated with Mr. Mueller’s investigation. But the president followed up — presumably because of warnings from Mr. Trump’s attorneys — with corrective tweets claiming that the firing was not punishment for Mr. McGahn’s cooperation.
If the United States Senate refuses to convict the president for obstructing justice, Mr. Trump could ignore those warnings going forward. He could pardon his friends and replace Mr. Sessions with an attorney general who would close down investigations of Mr. Trump’s allies, fire Mr. Mueller and initiate investigations of the president’s political enemies. If this sounds alarmist, remember that the president has publicly indicated that he would like all of these things to happen.
Furthermore, if Mr. Trump is given a green light to undermine the investigations, even if you set the question of impeachment aside, the American public will never know the truth about the threats to our elections and crimes that Mr. Mueller continues to investigate, among many other things.
Perhaps these drastic steps would jolt Senate Republicans into action. A charitable reading of their behavior thus far is that like the proverbial frog in boiling water, they have been unable to notice or react to the gradual ramping up of Mr. Trump’s obstruction. After all, for some time, many Republican senators warned the president not to interfere with the Mueller investigation.
But lately, even Mr. Mueller’s defenders, like Senator Lindsey Graham, have come around to accept Mr. Trump’s desire to fire the attorney general, leading many to conclude that Mr. Trump’s popularity with the Republican base has made party members unwilling to check his power because they fear a primary challenge. The line drawn by Republicans in the past appears to be far less defined than it once was.
The stakes could not be higher. A president with the power to initiate investigations of his opponents and quash investigations of his friends could destroy the rule of law and the ability of our criminal justice system to check corruption forever. For the sake of our nation, let us hope that congressional Republicans check the president while they still can.