President Donald Trump declared nearly a year ago, “I am actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer,” as he tried to assert control over Department of Justice decisions.
The claim in February 2020, as Trump basked in his Senate acquittal on US House impeachment charges and prepared to fire people who had testified against him, offered just one episode of his enduring contempt for the norms of justice.
Such transgressions, to be sure, were eclipsed this week by the riotous violence he instigated at the Capitol. Yet Thursday’s televised tableau of President-elect Joe Biden presenting Judge Merrick Garland to be the next attorney general provided a remarkable contrast to the Trump way and demonstrated that a restorative agenda has begun.
“You won’t work for me,” Biden said. “You are not the president’s or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It’s to the law, the Constitution.”
For his part, Garland referred to the pro-Trump mob’s destruction as Electoral College votes were being counted and said, “The rule of law is not just some lawyer’s turn of phrase. It is the very foundation of our democracy. The essence of the rule of law is that like cases are treated alike, that there is not one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends and another for foes.”
As Garland, 68, spoke of aspirations for integrity and neutrality to rebut the Trump pattern, his voice filled with emotion. The last time he was so visible on the national stage was March 2016, when President Barack Obama nominated him to a Supreme Court seat that opened after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Republican-controlled Senate blocked action on the appointment of Garland, a US appellate judge since 1997, and eventually saved the seat for Trump to fill.
Since he took office four years ago, Trump has sought to use the law to punish adversaries and reward his friends. He derided the justice system at every turn, mocked judges and essentially declared that the law is what he says it is. That’s continued with last month’s string of pardons for his political allies – and his consideration of pardoning himself.
But Trump’s false assertions and attacks on democratic values were merely the prelude to his current lie that he won reelection in November. He spurred thousands of his supporters to descend on Washington this week.
Biden referred to Trump’s disdain for democracy and the importance of a neutral Justice Department. He and Garland cited the 1970s post-Watergate reforms intended to restore trust in the Department of Justice and prevent a president from interfering with day-to-day investigations.
Trump had publicly badgered his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, calling him “weak” and “beleaguered.” Trump called the US justice system a “laughingstock.” He kept up the pressure on his second attorney general, William Barr, who took office in February 2019 and resigned last month.
Trump’s February 2020 remark about being “the chief law enforcement officer” arose as he sought a light sentence for his friend and political strategist Roger Stone, convicted of lying under oath to Congress and threatening a witness. (Trump pardoned Stone last month.)
Trump constantly tried to intervene in the business of the Justice Department, the FBI and US attorneys, as well as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Specter of Watergate
Over the past four years, Trump critics have compared his actions to Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s control over the Department of Justice. Nixon resigned in 1974 after trying to cover up his role in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building.
But Trump’s attitude has been more systemic than episodic. Rather than uphold American democracy, he has presented himself as an autocrat desiring absolute power.
Still, the post-Watergate reforms at the Justice Department were in the air as Garland said on Thursday that his “mission will be to reaffirm” those safeguards.
He noted that he first worked at the department in 1979 as an assistant to Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti. He later became a federal prosecutor and in the Clinton administration served as a senior Justice Department official.
Garland referred on Thursday to Biden’s promise that he would have the “independent capacity” to decide who is subject to prosecution, based on the facts and the law.
Said Garland, “I would not have agreed to be considered for attorney general under any other conditions.”