Ask people with deep knowledge of the US justice department about the damage Donald Trump might be doing to the country, and the conversation quickly flips back to Watergate.
Following Richard Nixon’s failed attempt to pull the plug on a special prosecutor who turned out to be on to something, the need for investigators to work free from White House interference was recognized by the public and reinforced by elected officials.
But now Trump is president, the public can seem apathetic or amnesiac and the norms governing justice department independence are being tested. Severely.
In interviews, two former assistant attorneys general, law professors and analysts from across the political spectrum used recurring words to describe Trump’s assault on justice: “dangerous”, “alarming”, “high-stakes”.
Some analysts warn that national security has also been endangered, as Trump has undermined public trust in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and intelligence agencies whose work is often conducted in secret and who therefore depend uniquely on such trust to function.
The question is whether Trump’s snips and snaps at the norms of justice department independence represent some greater dislocation: a constitutional crisis of some kind or even an erosion of the rule of law in America, as some commentators have posited.
In recent weeks, Trump has escalated his war on his perceived foes in the Department of Justice (DoJ), which hosts the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign officials.
That investigation, Trump has informed his Twitter followers, is the work of a “criminal deep state” engaged in a “WITCH HUNT” originally engineered by none other than Barack Obama.
If the Trump-supporting public is bothered by that kind of freewheeling conspiracy talk, there’s little sign of it. The president’s average approval rating is hovering close to 42%, pretty good for him. But others are deeply bothered by Trump’s seemingly nonstop provocations directed at the FBI, the attorney general, the intelligence apparatus and other DoJ agencies.
On Thursday, Trump casually granted a pardon to the race-baitingconservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to campaign finance charges. The pardon was taken as a potential signal to former associates not to “flip” and cooperate with federal prosecutors – because even if they are convicted, a pardon may be waiting.