The rogue department: how the Trump DoJ trashed legal and political norms

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

Donald Trump never did much to hide his dangerous belief that the US justice department and the attorneys general who helmed it should serve as his own personal lawyers and follow his political orders, regardless of norms and the law.

Former senior DoJ officials say the former president aggressively prodded his attorneys general to go after his enemies, protect his friends and his interests, and these moves succeeded with alarming results until Trump’s last few months in office.

Related: The martyr who may rise again: Christian right’s faith in Trump not shaken

But now with Joe Biden sitting in the Oval Office, Merrick Garland as attorney general and Democrats controlling Congress, more and more revelations are emerging about just how far Trump’s justice department went rogue. New inquiries have been set up to investigate the scale of wrongdoing.

Trump’s disdain for legal principles and the constitution revealed itself repeatedly – especially during Bill Barr’s tenure as attorney general, during most of 2019 and 2020. During Barr’s term in office, Trump ignored the tradition of justice as a separate branch of government, and flouted the principle of the rule of law, say former top justice lawyers and congressional Democrats.

In Barr, Trump appeared to find someone almost entirely aligned with the idea of doing his bidding. Barr sought to undermine the conclusions of Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, independent congressional oversight, and Trump critics in and out of government, while taking decisions that benefited close Trump allies.

But more political abuses have emerged, with revelations that – starting under attorney general Jeff Sessions in 2018 – subpoenas were issued in a classified leak inquiry to obtain communications records of top Democrats on the House intelligence committee. Targets were Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, who were investigating Kremlin election meddling, and also several committee staffers and journalists.

Democrats in Congress, as well as Garland, have forcefully denounced these Trumpian tactics. Garland has asked the department’s inspector general to launch his own inquiry, and examine the subpoenas involving members of Congress and the media. Congressional committees are eyeing their own investigations into the department’s extraordinary behavior.

“There was one thing after another where DoJ acted inappropriately and violated the fundamental principle that law enforcement must be even-handed. The DoJ must always make clear that no person is above the law,” said Donald Ayer, deputy attorney general in the George HW Bush administration.

Ayer thinks there could be more revelations to come. “The latest disclosure of subpoenas issued almost three years ago shows we don’t yet know the full extent of the misconduct that was engaged in.”

Similarly, the ex-justice department inspector general Michael Bromwich said: “I think it’s pretty clear Trump had little respect for some of the true bedrock principles that define this country – judicial independence and separation of powers, among others. He also never showed any understanding or appreciation for norms that have historically gone unchallenged – the importance of free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power.”

In a blistering Washington Post op-ed, Schiff summed up the latest disclosures about the DoJ subpoenas, and the broader politicization at the DoJ under Trump.

“The rules established after Watergate to ensure the independence of the justice department served our nation well for half a century, until another president shattered them,” Schiff, now the head of the House intelligence committee, wrote. “Donald Trump had his own enemies list, which included members of the media, elected officials and congressional staff.”

But Trump’s repeated strong-arming of his attorneys general was not a complete success, even with Barr.

Trump’s desperate drive to overturn Joe Biden’s win reached a fruitless climax when Barr publicly disagreed with Trump’s baseless claims that he lost the election due to massive fraud. The acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, who succeeded Barr last December, also resisted Trump’s strong-arm tactics to open conspiracy-driven inquiries into election results in states Biden won.

But the late resistance Trump met at the department was largely an exception, although Sessions incurred Trump’s wrath for recusing himself from the Russia investigations because of a conflict of interest.

Trump’s pressure tactics were palpable when Sessions resigned in late 2018. Barr succeeded him in early 2019.

Barr spun and distorted some of the key findings of Mueller’s two-year inquiry into Russian meddling before it was officially released, to sway public opinion and undercut the report’s conclusion that Russia interfered in “sweeping and systematic” ways with an eye to helping Trump win in 2016.

Barr publicly tapped the Connecticut US attorney, John Durham, to investigate the origins of the FBI’s 2016 inquiry into Russian meddling, a move several ex DoJ officials criticized as redundant and politically driven, since a similar inquiry was already under way by the DoJ’s own inspector general, but that prompted Trump to exclaim: “I think it’s great.”

Last year, Barr drew fire for sentencing decisions that were widely viewed as favoring two Trump associates: the longtime Trump confidant and self styled “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, and ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, both of whom had been convicted in the Russia investigations.

In the case of Flynn, who twice admitted lying to the FBI, Barr opted to drop all charges on the grounds that the lies were not material, and Barr sharply reduced a sentence that Stone was supposed to serve. Trump commuted Stone’s sentence before he served any time, and later pardoned both men.

“Barr may not have fully appreciated how far Trump was willing to go in turning the DoJ into a plaything for the White House, to protect the president’s friends and pursue his enemies,” said Bromwich. “But Barr proved a willing accomplice on issues ranging from distorting the Mueller report to taking insupportable positions in cases in which Trump took a personal interest.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a top Democrat on the chamber’s judiciary committee, said in a statement: “Barr played the role of Trump’s personal fixer, and degraded the Department of Justice – long a citadel of the law – to the role of Trump’s personal law firm. He stonewalled Congress at every turn.”

He added: “He trashed Department rules and norms when inconvenient to the president. And he ran political errands for Trump, even if it meant a hit to the Department’s credibility. He left behind a colossal mess that will take lots of time and hard work to clean up.”