Trump seeks to bend the executive branch as part of impeachment vendetta
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is testing the rule of law one week after his acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, seeking to bend the executive branch into an instrument for his personal and political vendetta against perceived enemies.
And Trump - simmering with rage, fixated on exacting revenge against those he feels betrayed him and insulated by a compliant Republican Party - is increasingly comfortable doing so to the point of feeling untouchable, according to the president's advisers and allies.
In the span of 48 hours this week, the president has sought to protect his friends and punish his foes, even at the risk of compromising the Justice Department's independence and integrity - a stance that his defenders see as entirely justified.
Trump complained publicly about federal prosecutors' recommended prison sentence for one of his longtime friends and political advisers, Roger Stone. After senior Justice Department officials then overruled prosecutors to lighten Stone's recommended sentence, the president congratulated Attorney General William Barr for "taking charge" with an extraordinary intervention.
Next Trump sought to intimidate the federal judge in the Stone case, badgering her on Twitter for previous rulings, and attacked the four prosecutors who resigned from the case in apparent protest of the Justice Department's intervention. Then Trump floated the possibility of a presidential pardon for Stone, who was convicted by a jury in November of tampering with a witness and lying to Congress.
The president has openly encouraged his Justice Department to retaliate against a quartet of former FBI officials who long have been targets of his ire for their involvement in the Russia probe.
"Where's [James] Comey?" Trump bellowed Wednesday in a stream-of-consciousness diatribe from the Oval Office. "What's happening to [Andrew] McCabe? What's happening to Lisa and - to Pete Strzok and Lisa Page? What's happening with them? It was a whole setup, it was a disgrace for our country, and everyone knows it, too, everyone."
For months now, Trump has been enraged that these FBI officials have not been charged with crimes. And he has vented at length privately in recent weeks that James Wolfe, a former aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, received a prison sentence of two months for lying to FBI agents about his contact with reporters during a federal leak investigation - a criticism the president repeatedly publicly on Wednesday.
Some of Trump's top aides have counseled him against speaking out on legal matters, warning him that doing so could wrongly influence proceedings because officials at the Justice Department or elsewhere would then know they needed to please him or risk his wrath. Trump has often responded, "I have a right to say whatever I want," according to a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
"He knows exactly what he's doing," this official explained. "He knows that he has more power than anyone else in the government - and when he tweets, everyone has to listen to him."
A second former senior official, former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, said of Trump, "He is mad and he should be mad. The Democrats and the media wasted three years of the nation's time on a witch hunt. Now he understands how to use the full powers of the presidency. The pearl-clutchers better get used to it."
Trump insisted Wednesday that he did nothing improper in the Stone case. "I didn't speak to them, by the way, just so you understand," the president told reporters, referring to Justice Department officials. "They saw the horribleness."
Barr's defenders said he would always do what he thinks is right, regardless of pressure from the president, and noted that his department declined to charge Comey after an inspector general referral, despite what Trump might have wanted.
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said department leaders had decided to reverse career prosecutors' recommendation in the Stone case before Trump's public statement on the matter, and that there had been no discussions between the White House and the Justice Department in the two days beforehand.
Still, a chorus of former U.S. attorneys and former Justice Department leaders condemned Trump for what they consider improper political pressure in a criminal prosecution.
"I've never seen so many prosecutors, including those who aren't political or those who haven't been following this situation closely, go to red alert so quickly," said Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney in the Obama administration. "The reason is this: If a president can meddle in a criminal case to help a friend, then there's nothing that keeps him from meddling to harm someone he thinks is his enemy. That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die."
On Capitol Hill, Democrats, too, cried foul. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for emergency hearings and an investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general, saying the president's handling of the Stone case was "Third World behavior, not American behavior."
"We are witnessing a crisis in the rule of law in America unlike one we have ever seen before," Schumer said in a floor speech Wednesday morning.
But for members of Trump's party, this was no break-the-glass moment. Congressional Republicans evinced little distress, and some excused the president's conduct entirely.
"It doesn't bother me at all, as long as the judge has the final decision," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who sharply criticized the administration of President Barack Obama over alleged politicization of the Justice Department.
There is a precedent of at least one Senate Republican trying to contain Trump's handling of the Justice Department. In 2018, shortly after the president removed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he would not vote for any more of Trump's judicial nominees until the Senate voted on a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller III from being fired.
Flake's effort failed, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked a vote on the bill - and Flake, now retired, expects any similar gambit to put restraints on the president to face a similar fate.
"It should be a big moment for Republicans who have argued against this textbook concentration of power for years, whether it's dealing with our government or autocratic governments abroad," said Flake, a Trump critic. "But I don't see it. There is so much fatigue, in terms of challenging the president."
During an election year, few lawmakers are willing to offer even minor criticism of their own party's president and risk alienating GOP base voters, veteran Republican operatives said.
"It's one of those things where these lines have never been crossed in this way - that's the way responsible administrations act," said Brendan Buck, a longtime adviser to former House speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "But you'll end up seeing Republicans saying he has the authority to do it, even if they know it's not necessarily within the bounds of what should be done."
"It's like bad weather. Nothing more, nothing less," said one Republican congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly explain the thinking of top GOP lawmakers. "What do you expect? We're in year four of this. It just happens."
Former U.S. attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, said, "This president is not going to change. We need adults to step up and check his behavior. There was a demonstrated lack of spine recently in the United States Senate. Maybe they have a breaking point and maybe they don't. One of the things that people said about this Congress is that they've lost their authority. That's not true. They've just chosen not to exercise it."
If Senate Republicans who voted to acquit Trump thought he might be chastened or show contrition after his impeachment, they were proved wrong this week. Asked what lesson he learned from impeachment, the president told reporters Wednesday, "That the Democrats are crooked - they've got a lot of crooked things going - that they're vicious, that they shouldn't have brought impeachment."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday that the president must "play no role whatsoever when it comes to sentencing recommendations" - and said she planned to call the White House to discuss the Stone matter. Collins added that Trump "should not have commented" and that she wished he "would not tweet."
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Republican to vote to convict the president, told reporters, "I hope the Justice Department is independent of politics, and any indication that that's not the case would obviously be a real problem."
The intervention on behalf of Stone is not the only action this week causing alarm among Democrats. Trump also trashed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was abruptly dismissed last week from the National Security Council, and encouraged military leaders to discipline the decorated combat veteran in part because of his testimony about Trump's conduct with Ukraine in the House impeachment inquiry.
In addition, Trump on Tuesday withdrew the nomination of former U.S. attorney Jessie Liu to serve as undersecretary of the Treasury Department for terrorism and financial crimes after being lobbied by critics of her prosecutions. Liu oversaw several high-profile cases in the nation's capital, including ones inherited from special counsel Mueller and involving former Trump advisers Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and Stone.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Wednesday that Trump was "on a retribution tour."
"It's just one thing after another," said Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, where Liu had been set to testify Thursday at her confirmation hearing. "The president clearly feels he's unleashed. And [Republicans] all said he learned his lesson - the lesson he learned is he can get away with whatever he wants."
But Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., characterized the president as "generous" and said he understood Trump's rationale for each move and agreed with him. "You have a bureaucracy that has tried to push back in a way that is not just insubordinate, but downright unhealthy for our government," the senator said.
Cramer added that he understood why Trump tweeted about Stone. "The aggressiveness of the FBI and the prosecutors to go after people who are friends of the president, the zeal to which they prosecute, going rogue if you will," he said.
On Stone's case, conservative media commentators may have played a role in spurring Trump to action. Fox News Channel anchor Tucker Carlson, whose show the president regularly watches, has discussed Stone's cause on the air and cast the veteran political operative as a victim of politically motivated prosecutors.
"The White House counsel and Republican senators don't want to speak up for Roger," said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide and Stone associate. "But Tucker has been doing that - and the president listens to Tucker."
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis, Spencer S. Hsu and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.
This article was written by Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey, reporters for The Washington Post.