Here’s how strange things have gotten in Donald Trump’s America: On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired. On Thursday, liberals were out in the streets, in cities across America, protesting his dismissal.
Generally speaking, Sessions is not the most popular figure among the resistance. He came to the Justice Department after a career defined by race-baiting and immigrant-bashing. In two years on the job, he continued down that path in seeking to make American justice cruel again.
But the outcry over Sessions’ dismissal is not about him, but rather the trepidation that with his departure President Trump is seeking to shut down Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. With the ascendancy of Matthew Whitaker — Sessions’s former chief of staff and a partisan political operative — to the top job at the Department of Justice, those fears are genuine.
Ever since Sessions’ decided in early 2017 to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, the president insulted, humiliated, and railed against his then attorney general. If he had known of Sessions’ plans for recusal, Trump has publicly stated, he never would have named him to the post. In effect, Trump was complaining that his attorney general had refused to obstruct justice on the president’s behalf.
With Whitaker now on the job, Trump may get his wish.
Whitaker’s background suggests he is not remotely qualified for the job he now holds. His resume includes a short stint as a US attorney and as a failed Senate candidate in Iowa. He served on the advisory board of a patent company that was successfully sued by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading investors and forced to shut down. Later, he became a cable news talking head in what turned out to be a successful effort to catch Trump’s eye and get a job in his administration. A notable legal thinker Whitaker is not.
More troubling, however, are his views on the Russia investigation. He has said that there is “no evidence” of collusion by the Trump campaign and has accused Mueller of getting “dangerously close to crossing” a line when it was reported that the special counsel was looking into the president’s personal finances. Whitaker even managed the campaign of a witness in Mueller’s inquiry, former Trump campaign official Sam Clovis. Just one of these conflicts would be reason for Whitaker to recuse himself from supervising Mueller’s investigation. Instead, he appears to be taking over control of it from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who should have taken over for Sessions).
Someone with this record — and these extraordinary conflicts of interest — would face a difficult path to Senate confirmation. That is probably why Trump did not nominate Whitaker to be attorney general, but rather made him, on an acting basis, the most powerful law enforcement official in America.
Trump’s actions represent a brazen effort to circumvent the Senate’s constitutionally mandated advice-and-consent role — and place a political crony in a position to provide him the protection that Sessions would not.
It is yet one more salvo from this president on the independence of the Justice Department and the rule of law. Lest we forget, he fired former FBI Director James Comey and openly admitted that he did so in order to block the Russia investigation. He’s publicly attacked Mueller and members of the FBI investigating him and his campaign and even directly criticized Sessions for indicting a Republican member of Congress before a midterm election.
But last week’s developments might be the most alarming of all. Trump is attempting to turn the Department of Justice into a political arm of the White House and, in the process, use political loyalists to openly impede a criminal investigation that touches on his own conduct.
When you think about it, the surprising thing is not that liberals are in the streets protesting, it’s that all Americans aren’t joining them. This is banana republic territory. And if Trump succeeds in this gambit, the rule of law in America will be on life support.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.