Rethinking America

Trump’s Sense of “Justice”: Ever More Troubling

Forget the idea of the U.S. separation of powers. Donald Trump is annexing the entire U.S. justice system.

Credit: Gage Skidmore


  • Ever since Trump was acquitted in his recent impeachment trial, he seems to have thrown all remaining remnants of self-control to the winds.
  • Trump is proving day after day how a president bereft of any sense of traditions can turn the entire US system of checks and balances into mincemeat.
  • Democrats – the official opposition -- may sound outraged by Trump’s actions on TV and on the campaign trail, but it does not matter.
  • Given the obsequiousness of the people in the White House, the Executive branch and the Republican Party’s leadership, there is nobody able and willing to stop Trump.

President Donald Trump is setting the stage for pardoning some of his crooked friends who happen to be facing the full wrath of the law. Forget the U.S. separation of powers, Trump is annexing the U.S. justice system.

Trump’s domestic imperialism

Ever since 52 Republican Senators voted to acquit Trump in his recent impeachment trial, the U.S. President seems to have thrown all remaining remnants of self-control to the winds.

Trump believes that he has not only been totally exonerated of any alleged crimes, but that he has been personally empowered to control the nation’s justice system.

The U.S. Attorney General as Trump’s personal lap dog

No U.S. president in modern times has sought such total control of the Department of Justice. William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States, is going to great lengths to demonstrate his total fealty to Trump. His shamelessness has prompted more than 2,000 former Justice Department lawyers to call for his resignation.

As Barr’s reputation becomes increasingly sullied, and as Trump continues to Tweet about matters that ought to be the sole province of the Justice Department, so Barr has told associates according to The Washington Post, that he is considering quitting.

Would that make any difference? Mr. Trump is unlikely to change his habits, whether Barr leaves or stays.

Checks and balances? A faint memory

What this underscores yet again is just how feeble the system of checks and balances in the United States really is. Traditionally, it was sold to the American public and the world as a true, impenetrable bastion of the spirit of real democracy.

In reality, Donald Trump is proving day after day how a president bereft of any sense of traditions can turn the entire, supposedly finely and solidly calibrated U.S. system of checks and balances into mincemeat.

It also makes plain the fact that it was very risky to leave so many of the concepts vague and mostly as a matter of verbal traditions. Not making them explicitly legally binding requirements allows Mr. Trump to play his games.

It has long been the accepted convention that the Justice Department enjoys considerable independence from the White House and that public prosecutors are beholden solely to the U.S. Constitution, not to the President. Trump is tearing up those traditions and conventions as he demonstrates his mounting appetite for raw power.

“Mr. Pardon Power”

Underscoring his power, Trump has just pardoned four high-profile corrupt criminals. First, he freed former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich who has served eight years out of a 14-year jail sentence for more than 20 counts of fraud, corruption and lying – including an effort to sell a U.S. Senate seat for $1.5 million.

Then Trump pardoned – thus erasing from the record books and no doubt making them now welcome at White House dinners – three prominent fraudsters who had all been found guilty by juries long ago and had taken their punishments:

• Bernie Kerik, the former chief cop of New York City, who a jury found guilty in 2010 for corruption and fraud and who served three-and-a-half years in jail.

• Michael Milken – once the “junk-bond” king of Wall Street, spent two years in prison and paid a $600 million fine after being indicted back in 1989 for racketeering and securities fraud.

• Property tycoon and former owner of the San Francisco 49rs football team, Edward DeBartolo, paid a $ 1 million fine, and was on probation for two years after being found guilty to bribing a politician in 1998.

Trump’s criminal friends

Trump’s actions may also boost the confidence of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone – all of whom played important roles in Trump’s 2016 election and who may now expect Trump’s legal generosity.

Manafort, now serving a 7-year prison term for corruption, tax and banking fraud, was Trump’s campaign manager in the 2016 election and Trump has at times talked about the unfair treatment that Manafort has been given.

Flynn, who awaits sentencing having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his illegal lobbying activities and who was Trump’s first White House national security advisor, has not only been encouraged by Trump to withdraw his guilty plea.

But in an extraordinary move Barr has brought into the Justice Department some outside lawyers to review whether the prosecution was appropriate.

Standing up for Stone, the crookster

Roger Stone, a former public relations partner of Manafort, has known Donald Trump for 30 years. The prosecutors at the Justice Department called for a prison sentence of up to nine years after Stone was found guilty by a jury for multiple crimes, including lying to the FBI and witness intimidation.

Incensed, Trump tweeted the sentence suggestion was an outrage. Barr wrote to the court advocating a much lower sentence — and the four public prosecutors who were managing the case immediately withdraw from it.

Nothing illegal

With regard to the pardons and public comments about the failures of the Justice Department to pursue his friends, rather than his many political enemies, it bears repeating that none of Trump’s actions is illegal.

Given the obsequiousness of all the people in the White House, in the Executive branch of the government or in the ranks of the Republican Party’s leadership, there is nobody able and willing to stop Donald Trump.

For their part, Democrats – the official opposition — may sound outraged on TV, on the campaign trail and in their responses to the freeing of a scoundrel like Rod Blagojevich. But it does not matter.

The voters’ hands

The only thing that may matter now is the outcome of the upcoming November 3, 2020 presidential election. Perhaps the voters will recognize the dangers to their way of life and to democracy and vote to oust Trump. The election outcome is uncertain.

Meanwhile, some anti-Trumpers see what he is doing to the Justice Department and fear that even if he loses the election he will refuse to leave the White House, claiming that the results were rigged, that the Democrats “stole the poll” and that the courts must nullify the results!

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of and author of “The Enablers - How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption-Endangering Our Democracy" (Roman and Littlefield)

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