Donald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at Trump Tower in Manhattan

Trump on the Warpath: Attacking the Justice Department

(Updated 5 September 2018) Trump is on the warpath. Trump is cornered. Two catastrophic verdicts against his personal fix-it lawyer Michael Cohen (who has taken a plea deal) and his one-time campaign manager Manafort (who hasn’t) have made the news this week.  Both directly implicate him and the Trump organization. This is obviously driving him mad. And as usual, he has turned to Twitter to defend himself – or rather, go on the attack which is his natural self-defense system.

His target? Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man he dislikes for not having shown him the blind loyalty he expects from all his aides:

The day before, Jeff Sessions had defended the action of the Justice Department:

Today, August 24, Trump responded with two tweets directed at Sessions, opening a new chapter in Trump’s long fight against the American justice system. To his usual cries of “collusion”, “rigged witch hunt”, he’s added, bizarrely, a more personal plea, or more accurately,  a threat to Jeff Sessions:

Note how he cleverly starts off by repeating Jeff Sessions’ own defense of the JD’s action, saying of it: “this is GREAT, what everyone wants”. The implication is now, Jeff-boy, do it! “Look at all the corruption on the other side”. And he lists a long list of supposed Dem crimes. Including, this could not fail,  “Mueller conflicts” and mention of McCabe, Strzok, Page etc.

But it doesn’t stop here. The second tweet completes the list and call to action:

For good measure, he’s thrown in the Clinton Foundation (always a convenient scapegoat), the “illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign” (there was none) and “Russian collusion by Dems” (what collusion?).

If you really feel you have to say something like this, you do it in the intimacy of your office, with all doors closed. Certainly not hollering on Twitter.

To go on Twitter to publicly twist the Attorney General’s arm and try to engage him in a series of actions to change or obstruct the course of the Justice Department’s activities is simply unheard of. Historically, no President has ever done anything like this. Not publicly. Not even Nixon – especially not Nixon who liked to engage in shadowy, behind-the-curtains actions.

Does Trump’s openness play in his favor? For his fan base, there is no doubt that it works. For the rest (the majority), not so much. Mainly because his pronouncements are laden with lies and exaggerated claims. Like this tweet that preceded his attack on Jeff Sessions:

Presumably, this was a way to lay the ground for the subsequent attack on Sessions. Give himself a pat on the back. Tell everyone, look here, I’m super, the country has never been doing so well in all its History and it’s all thanks to me, The Donald.

For an economist (like me), this is irritating. There was no “tremendous value” created since his election. The upswing in the economy had started under Obama, many years before, and it was simply proceeding. Nothing unusual in this and certainly not the result of any Trumpian policies.

Some economists, chief among them Lawrence Summers are not remotely as sanguine as Trump about the economy. Maintaining the momentum of current output is a tough challenge, Summers sees “secular stagnation” and a rising risk of a violent downturn:

On the international front, it’s no better. Can Trump really claim “the world is respecting us again”? Ask the G-7 nations – the Europeans, Canada, Japan – who got insulted by Trump at their last meeting. Do you think Canada, America’s closest neighbor and long-time historic friend, is happy? Or, more recently Turkey, a major NATO ally?  Erdogan, Turkey’s autocratic president, is certainly not respecting the U.S. And the Turkey-U.S. spat could become a big problem for NATO too.  

Actually, Trump, between insults and trade war threats, has managed to isolate America like never before.

As “to companies moving back to the U.S.A.”, which companies? At best, just a handful. Adding up to less than fifty thousand jobs, a drop in the ocean of American employment. And in any case, most companies are making contingency plans to move back, in case the mid-term elections go Trump’s way. Not a given, considering that most mid-term elections, in the best of cases (and not in this one) usually move against the sitting President.

Bottom line, the problem with Trump’s tweets openly attacking Sessions is that here we have a President attacking his own Attorney General. And his tweets sound disturbingly like a mafia warning: Either do as I tell you, or else. The threatening sub-text is obvious. Not pretty. And the sort of thing that could boomerang badly.

Be careful, Mr. Trump, with what you tweet…

Update (5 September 2018): Trump Attacks Sessions Again

This time the attack is far worse, and for many people Trump crossed a red line. As the New York Times put it, he “crossed lines that even he had not yet breached, asserting that specific continuing criminal prosecutions should be decided on the basis of partisan advantage.”

The story, contained in two tweets, is quickly told:

Calling the Justice Department “the Jeff Sessions Justice Department” betrays a stunningly warped vision of how democratic institutions work. For Mr. Trump, the whole world is a partisan fight, you’re either with him or against him.

The two Congressmen he is talking about are Duncan Hunter, Republican of California,  indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that he and his wife, Margaret, misused more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses and Chris Collins, a Republican of New York on charges of insider trading. Collins withdrew from the race but Hunter couldn’t take his name off the ballot and now he will face voters before jurors.

The Justice Department made no comments. But even Republican party members objected. Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska and a member of the Judiciary Committee issued a statement saying:

“The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice — one for the majority and one for the minority party. These two men have been charged with crimes because of evidence, not because of who the president was when the investigations began.”

It couldn’t have been said better.

And this time Sessions himself issued a rare rebuke:

“While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations. No nation has a more talented, more dedicated group of law enforcement investigators and prosecutors than the United States.”

It comes down to a fight between Mr. Trump and America’s democratic institutions, with the Justice Department on the front line. That an American President could deviate so far from his constitutional mandate is extraordinary. A historical first. Trump is definitely putting American democracy to the test. We’ll see who wins.

 


EDITOR’S NOTE: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE BY IMPAKTER.COM COLUMNISTS ARE THEIR OWN, NOT THOSE OF IMPAKTER.COM
FEATURED IMAGEDonald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 7, 2016. CREDIT: REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

 

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