Allies of President Donald Trump are taking their time with an ongoing and laborious project: rooting out the Russiagate contingent at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The work is slow and painstaking. Until recently, it seemed to require taking lawyers out one-by-one. But the goal, in proponents’ minds, is laudatory and worth it—all-but politically and morally necessary. And when they’re finished? None of the attorneys who previously comprised former special counsel Robert Mueller’s onetime army will remain.
According to Politico’s Daniel Lippman and Natasha Bertrand, it’s hard to tell whether the decision-making in the White House is being driven by Trump’s defenders in the conservative movement and MAGA spheres or whether the stars are simply aligning in due course with obviously shared political motives.
Bertrand herself did not mince words when describing the goings-on via Twitter.
“The MAGA punditry’s outsized influence over the president means their campaign against the so-called Mueller ‘holdovers’ is not falling on deaf ears,” she wrote.
But the president’s critics aren’t too concerned about who’s pulling other peoples’ rip cords here—just the fact that it’s happening at all is enough to ignite tempers and set alight a familiar chorus of legalized accusations.
“This is retaliation and most likely illegal,” University of Minnesota Law Professor Richard Painter, a former White House ethics attorney for the George W. Bush administration, told Law&Crime. “Some of these investigations are ongoing—meaning this is obstruction of justice.”
The 45th president is clearly emboldened by the replete failure of the Democratic Party’s narrowly-cabined, lightning-fast and ultimately slapdash efforts to impeach and remove him. His approval ratings have steadily climbed since acquittal. His fingerprints—barely disguised—have been all over decisions putatively made by his loyal and powerful Attorney General William Barr.
And as for somewhat obviously politicized investigations of Trump’s political enemies—the basic casus belli of the national security-tinged impeachment conflagration and generally dispiriting sideshow itself? Those inquiries are continuing apace; perhaps with even greater force, zest and gusto than before.
In one sense—or political estimation—the question might be: why wouldn’t the president move to sideline attorneys who once worked against him? Even if they only did so as dutiful career officers of the department to which they pledged their professional allegiance? After all, successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have built the U.S. presidency into an all-but imperial force with essentially no functioning method of accountability. The unitary executive theory has been embraced part-and-parcel with the Reagan-Bush-Clinton consensus that eviscerated Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal framework, after all.
Political players here insist that’s exactly it. They see concerns as not much more than misplaced liberal alarmism.
“A major theme of Trump’s campaign was draining the swamp, and so MAGAworld will see this as him keeping a promise in that vein—its not exactly the first time a President switched out federal attorneys,” OANN correspondent Jack Posobiec said in a message to Law&Crime. “He probably would have done it sooner if not for the Russia investigation.”
Indeed, the president’s supporters insist the slow-motion Mueller cleanup is much ado about nothing—except having a competent and well-oiled political machine at DOJ.
“This is a straightforward issue,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told Politico—dismissing concerns that the apparent purge was anything akin to untoward. “The president runs the Justice Department and there are a lot of people who don’t want the Justice Department to investigate Democrats. All of this noise is designed to make it difficult for the Justice Department to investigate Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and those implicated in the illegal spying of Donald Trump.”
Still, some legal observers were hard pressed to find an optimistic outcome amongst the nakedly partisan hammer swings touching down upon the increasingly ironically-named Justice Department.
Civil Rights lawyer Sasha Samberg-Champion, a former DOJ attorney, offered a somber gaze at what the personnel shakeup likely portends:
It’s very distressing to see people openly calling for career government employees to be punished for doing their jobs. This is exactly why we have both civil service protections and the norm that DOJ lawyers make decisions in individual cases without using politics as their starting point. Once those protections are gone, government lawyers can be subject to pressure to do things in a nakedly political way. That’s very dangerous.
“Promises of revenge were made, the promises are being kept,” National security attorney Bradley P. Moss said.
[image via Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images]