Trump claims to be Law of the Land
US President declares himself the ‘Chief Law Enforcement Officer’ of America
During his Senate impeachment trial, Democrats repeatedly asserted that President Trump is “not above the law.” But since his acquittal two weeks ago, analysts say, the president has taken a series of steps aimed at showing that, essentially, he is the law.
On Tuesday, Trump granted clemency to a clutch of political allies, circumventing the usual Justice Department process. The pardons and commutations followed Trump’s moves to punish witnesses in his impeachment trial, publicly intervene in a pending legal case to urge leniency for a friend, attack a federal judge, accuse a juror of bias and threaten to sue his own government for investigating him.
Trump defended his actions, saying he has the right to shape the country’s legal systems as he sees fit.
“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters as he left Washington on Tuesday for a trip to California, Nevada and Arizona. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I’ve chosen not to be involved.”
The president’s post-impeachment behavior has alarmed Attorney General William P. Barr, who has told people close to the president that he is willing to quit unless Trump stops publicly commenting on ongoing criminal matters, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. It also has appalled several legal experts and former officials, who have said his direct intervention in legal matters risks further politicizing law enforcement at a time of fraying confidence in the Justice Department.
More than 2,000 former Justice Department employees signed a public letter this week objecting to Trump’s public intervention in the case of his longtime friend Roger Stone, and urging Attorney General William P. Barr to resign. The head of the Federal Judges Association has called an emergency meeting to address growing concerns about political interference in the Stone case. And four prosecutors resigned from the case last week after Trump publicly decried their recommended prison sentence of seven to nine years for Stone and the Justice Department reversed course to lobby for a lower sentence.
A jury convicted Stone last year of lying to Congress and obstruction in a case that Trump has repeatedly condemned as unfair while leaving open the prospect of issuing a pardon for his friend and political ally.
Carmen Ortiz, the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts under President Barack Obama, was among the signatories on the letter condemning Trump’s political interference in legal matters.
“I’ve worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” she said, “and I’ve just never seen behavior like what we’re seeing right now.”
Trump added to the sense of legal disarray Tuesday by granting executive clemency to a group of 11 people that included several political allies and others convicted of corruption, lying and fraud. Among the recipients of Trump’s largesse was Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 related to trying to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat. His sentence was commuted. Financier Michael Milken, who was charged with insider trading in the 1980s, and Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner jailed on eight felony charges, including tax fraud, were pardoned.
Trump said the pardons and commutations were based on “the recommendations of people that know them,” including Blagojevich’s wife, Patricia, who made a direct appeal to the president on Fox News.
Legal experts said that by relying on his personal connections rather than the Justice Department’s established review process for finding convicts deserving of clemency, Trump risked politicizing his pardon power.
“It’s a clemency process for the well-connected, and that’s it,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor and clemency expert at the New York University School of Law. “Trump is wielding the power the way you would expect the leader of a banana republic who wants to reward his friends and croni-es.”