Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump’s actions this week attacking the US justice system are stunning only in how much they conform to a three-year pattern that seems unstoppable.
Since his early days in office, Trump has scorned legal norms and the men and women who carry them out. He publicly mocked federal judges, derided the criminal justice system as a “laughingstock” and used his first presidential pardon on Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt.
Back then, Trump critics speculated that the President’s audacious remarks and actions might backfire. Perhaps they would hurt the administration’s legal positions in court. Perhaps public opinion would chasten him. Perhaps the dignity of office would change his behavior.
The episodes have only piled up with no obvious cost to Trump. He is in a wholly different category for the modern presidency, disregarding the rule of law and delegitimizing judges and others appointed to safeguard the system.
He publicly encourages prosecutors to reward his friends and punish his enemies. Over the years, he has proclaimed people guilty or not guilty before trial, or immediately deserving of the death penalty or exoneration. He is a law unto himself.
This week represented an escalation. Trump appears emboldened by his Senate acquittal earlier this month. He began immediately removing from office individuals who had testified at the House impeachment inquiry, and his pronouncements in recent days underscore his notion that the justice system is legitimate only if it reinforces his interests.
In Las Vegas on Thursday, Trump criticized the criminal case against his friend and political strategist Roger Stone and raised the possibility of “a bad jury.” Trump also broadly assailed law enforcement. He declared some FBI officials “scum” and said, without reference to anyone in particular, “So we have a lot of dirty cops.”
What makes Trump’s public criticism different from that of past presidents is the way it fundamentally attacks the rule of law.
The President resides at the pinnacle of the executive branch, presumably a model to all Americans, and clearly a leader who can influence those in the ranks below. And, still, he speaks not as someone who would reinforce America’s democratic values but as someone who would hold autocratic absolute power.
As the week began, Trump declared control over Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice, saying, “I am actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer.” Also on Tuesday, just two days before his friend Stone was to be sentenced, Trump granted clemency or pardoned several people with whom he had close ties.
Many had compromised the public trust, such as Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic Illinois governor who tried to sell an open Senate seat, and Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who was convicted of tax fraud and lying to officials.
The Trump remarks that followed suggested those pardons were a prelude to some reprieve for Stone, who was sentenced Thursday after being convicted last year of lying under oath to Congress and threatening a witness, related to Stone’s work on the 2016 Trump campaign. (The case was one of several that flowed out of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential contest.)
The President plainly believed Stone innocent of the charges and undeserving of prison time — and may have influenced the Justice Department on the latter point.
Federal prosecutors had initially asked Judge Amy Berman Jackson to sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison. But last week after Trump called the Stone case “horrible and very unfair” on Twitter, Barr agreed that seven years would be too harsh. (The original prosecutors on the case resigned, and DOJ submitted a second recommendation for “far less,” but without a specified number of years.)
Jackson ended up sent