Trump and the Department of Justice

Russia Probe Causes Tension Among Top Officials at Justice Department, blares CNN. I’ll say. Trump is furious with Sessions for recusing himself from Russia-related investigations, and Rosenstein for appointing Mueller. Sessions is also mad at Rosenstein for appointing Mueller. Rosenstein, who is beginning to behave a touch erratically, might recuse himself from supervision of Mueller, who Trump hates and thinks is biased, because Rosenstein was involved with Trump’s dismissal of former FBI director Comey, which Mueller is investigating. Next in line for this snake pit is Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. Brand is well-regarded but lacks the experience and reputation of Rosenstein, Mueller, and Comey, who have all been or are being ground into tiny bits by the giant Trump food processor, and is already suspect among Trump opponents because of her connections to the right. If she steps into Rosenstein’s shoes, expect no one on either side to trust her decisions—not Trump, because of her connection to the Republican establishment, not the Democrats, also because of her connection to the Republican establishment.

Some observations:

1. Because the DOJ works closely with the president, its top officials can be implicated in the president’s illegal behavior in complex ways—worst of course if they are complicit (Sessions?), but it could also be that they are witnesses (Rosenstein) or even victims (Comey).

2. These are lawyers, and to some extent will be more loyal to the law than to the president who appointed them (but see Mitchell, Kleindienst), but they are under great pressure and must make subtle judgments that are unavoidably political even if they will always say they are guided by the (hopelessly ambiguous) law.

3. Remember Kenneth Starr? Or Lawrence Walsh? A special counsel really can be biased, and can go too far, and make bad judgments. Gingrich, Trump, & Co. really are being clever in preparing the way for such a view. The self-defensive leaks from DOJ about the Trump obstruction of justice investigation, if that is where they came from, have already damaged the integrity of the Mueller investigation. Mueller is now in a very difficult position: he must be fair, appear fair (not the same thing), maintain staff morale, and so on.

4. What we have then is a dogfight pitting Trump & Co. versus an already compromised DOJ that nonetheless possesses vastly more bureaucratic experience, expertise, and savvy but mostly lacking in political instincts. Who will win? Expect mutual demolition.