(CNN)Maybe the most insidious effect of Donald Trump’s presidency has been his increasingly overt influence on American justice.
A version of this story appeared in CNN What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
The US system was set up according to the principle that no one is above the law, not even the most powerful person in the land. But Trump has steadily chipped away at that. Each of these things feed into each other:
– Refusing to release his tax returns and other financial information;
– Having his lawyers insist that he can’t be charged with a crime while he’s in office, even if he did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue;
– Asserting absolute immunity from any type of congressional oversight;
– Having his lawyers argue during his impeachment trial that he can’t actually be abusing power if it’s to help himself get re-elected;
– And now, without even trying to hide it, tipping the scales of justice to help his friends.
Hands on the scales — He’s interfered in military courts to help Navy SEALs accused of war crimes. He’s pressured the military to seek retribution against an Army officer who told the truth under oath. He’s bullied judges, tried to launch politically motivated investigations and just generally questioned the whole concept of impartiality.
His most willing accomplice in undermining the rule of American law appears to be Attorney General William Barr, who testified during his confirmation hearings that he would be independent of Trump and his whims.
“I feel I’m in a position in life where I can do the right thing and not really care about the consequences,” Barr told senators then. “I can be truly independent.”
But the view of Barr’s performance from the outside suggests the attorney general is the President’s prime enabler.
The current calamity started with Trump tweeting on Tuesday that his own Justice Department’s sentencing recommendations for his informal adviser Roger Stone — who was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering during the Russia investigation to protect Trump — was “horrible and very unfair.”
After Trump tweeted Tuesday, Barr’s Justice Department hopped to attention to ask for a lighter sentence for Stone. A judge will have the final say, but four career prosecutors immediately quit the case, making their displeasure known. CNN reported Wednesday that other prosecutors have discussed resigning.
He also attacked the judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson, on Twitter.
Then came the final hammer: The White House abruptly withdrew the nomination of Jessie Liu, the former US attorney in Washington, DC, for a top Treasury job, days before her confirmation hearing. Liu oversaw the Stone prosecution as well as a criminal inquiry into former FBI official Andrew McCabe, an ally of former FBI director James Comey, who has been a repeated target of Trump’s ire. (McCabe is now a CNN contributor.)
“This kind of thing, to see the government and the people who tried the case to put in a sentencing recommendation and have it literally flipped within 24 hours by political bosses, and it looks like based on the president’s tweet, undermines everything about the rule of law and really concerns me,” said Anne Milgram, an NYU law professor and former attorney general of New Jersey.
She said what Trump has done to the Justice Department will have a lasting effect on Americans’ faith in the system.
Trump thinks he has friends and enemies, but nothing in between. He has repeatedly railed since taking office against the “deep state,” and many in government as well as his political allies have contorted themselves to align themselves with their boss.
His friends are rewarded with special treatment by the Department of Justice or influence beyond their experience while his enemies — in many cases, career public servants — are driven from government, shunned, threatened — and sometimes, all three.
It’s a modern-day spoils system and, ironically, the exact kind of corruption Trump promised to root out of Washington when he took office.
“He’s essentially setting up two classes of people,” said David Gergen, the adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents from Nixon to Clinton. “One class of people he likes and he’s going to give favor to. Another class that he hates and he’s going to treat harshly.”
That favoritism is, according to Gergen, “compromising the Department of Justice in a way we have not seen I don’t think since Watergate and even then I thought it was more in-bounds.”
We’ve seen a consistent pattern play out throughout Trump’s time in government, at the State Department, the Pentagon and elsewhere. But just in the past few weeks, there’s a trail of revenge and reward that is unlike anything we’ve seen in previous modern presidencies.
Here is a brief taxonomy of Trump-world:
Roger Stone — friend. His reward? Trump can someday pardon his longtime political adviser Stone for his conviction for lying to the Mueller probe. For now, his tweets just influenced the Department of Justice to seek a lighter sentence.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — enemy. His revenge? Trump had Vindman, who complied with a subpoena and testified at impeachment hearings removed from the White House. He said the military should punish him even though the military has promised Vindman would suffer no retribution for his honesty. Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly — a Marine — stuck up for Vindman during an appearance at Drew University Wednesday, saying Vindman was right to report an “illegal order.”
Mitt Romney — enemy. His revenge? Trump’s son said Romney should be kicked out of the party after he voted to convict Trump on one of the two impeachment counts he faced. Romney’s niece, who chairs the Republican National Committee, publicly sided with the President over her uncle. Conservative supporters said Romney wouldn’t be invited to the annual CPAC conference in part because they feared for his safety.