Republicans Plan to Once Again Abuse the Justice Department

There have been times over the last eight years when I’ve thought that a good way to judge the impact of the Obama administration was to watch how loudly right wingers scream about their actions. Such was the case when I read what Fred Barnes wrote about the job he envisions that Jeff Sessions (Trump’s nominee to be Attorney General) will face as he takes on the role of “mucking out the Justice Department.”

Given that Barnes assumes that it will be Sessions’ job to “drain the swamp” at DOJ, it is interesting to keep in mind that this is what happened under the Bush/Cheney administration:

For nearly two years, a young political aide sought to cultivate a “farm system” for Republicans at the Justice Department, hiring scores of prosecutors and immigration judges who espoused conservative priorities and Christian lifestyle choices…

An extensive report by the department’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility concluded yesterday that Goodling and others had broken civil service laws, run afoul of department policy and engaged in “misconduct,” a finding that could expose them to further scrutiny and sanctions. The report depicted Goodling as a central figure in politicizing employment decisions at Justice during the Bush administration.

There were other scandals documented at DOJ during those years. Like the the unprecedented dismissal of several U.S. Attorneys for not toeing the party line in their investigations/prosecutions and the politicization of the Civil Rights Division.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Barnes outlines as the problems at DOJ.

The “Ferguson effect” that has weakened law enforcement ever since the August 2014 rioting in the Missouri town should be confronted. President Obama and Holder exacerbated it by putting police officers under a constant threat of federal investigation and second-guessing of their conduct.

Selective enforcement of the law—actually nonenforcement—began early in the Obama administration when Justice declined to prosecute armed members of the New Black Panthers who had intimidated voters in Philadelphia in the 2008 presidential election. Since then, immigration rules, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the federal requirement to maintain the accuracy of voting rolls have gone unenforced.

And the impression that powerful people are above the law was heightened. Obama played a role by intervening when his friend, Harvard professor Skip Gates, was arrested while struggling to open the front door of his house. Bob Dylan’s notion that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom was disproved in the Obama years.

Grassroots conservatives—the non-violent Tea Party patriots—were at the bottom. Justice officials colluded with the IRS against these nonprofit, nonpartisan groups who sought tax-exempt status. They schemed to thwart these groups, even prosecute them, as subpoenaed documents later revealed.

Bankers involved in the economic collapse in 2008 got kinder treatment. They were “too big to jail.” But with the threat of jail hovering in their minds, they agreed to fork over billions in fines. There’s a name for this: extortion. The money was often donated to liberal and left-wing groups—in effect, subsidizing them.

That list contains just about every tea party shibboleth one can imagine over the last eight years…New Black Panthers, DOMA, voter fraud, Skip Gates and the IRS. I’m frankly surprised that Benghazi didn’t make the cut. But I have to admit that I hadn’t heard the one about settlement funds from banks being extortion money that went to liberal groups. But hey, I’ll give Barnes credit for creative lying on that one.

What does he want Sessions to do about all that? Give speeches.

Speeches on the uses and abuses of federal power could spark a national discussion, focusing in part on Obama’s stretching of Washington’s authority to the breaking point. Avoiding partisan overtones, while tricky, would be necessary.

An Attorney General giving speeches about how a former president abused his power while his successor threatened to jail his political opponent and discussed the need to change libel laws so that he could litigate against a free press would be a master class in irony.

But Barnes isn’t done yet.

Now for the hardest part: reforming the civil rights division, the office of legal counsel, and the solicitor general’s office. The first two are heavily staffed by left-wing ideologues who have burrowed into civil service jobs. Firing them may not be possible.

As everyone in Washington knows, the civil rights staff has run amok for the past eight years. It has elevated “disparate impact” to a high principle that frees the government from having to prove actual racial discrimination. Sessions can flip that to require acts of bias, but he may face a revolt. Or at least a lot of leaks.

I’m fascinated by his assumption that “everyone in Washington knows” that “the civil rights staff has run amok for the past eight years.” If he’s right, it would have been nice to see more reporting on that. But it’s true, the civil rights division has been staffed with people who actually have experience in civil rights enforcement…which obviously makes them left-wing ideologues. It’s also true that the Civil Rights Division successfully defended disparate impact as a measure of discrimination at the Supreme Court.

But here is the place where Barnes truly does his best to break everyone’s irony meter:

The office of legal counsel was once DoJ’s crown jewel, known for its integrity and professionalism. Its job was to determine if proposed policies, particularly the president’s, meet constitutional standards. Under Obama, it stamped its approval on anything he wanted to do, including recess appointments when there wasn’t a congressional recess.

During the Bush administration, it was the office of legal counsel that drafted the notorious memos in an attempt to give cover for the use of torture in their so-called “global war on terror” (anyone remember John Yoo?) And yet for Barnes, the real horror is that they counseled Obama that he could make recess appointments when Congress played word-games about when they were/weren’t in session.

What all this boils down to is that we’ve already had a sneak peak at how a Republican administration can abuse the DOJ to further their nefarious ends on everything from voter suppression to torture. That all unfolded from 2001 to 2008 under the Bush administration. People like President Obama, Eric Holder and Tom Perez spent years undoing all of that. What Barnes is advocating is that Jeff Sessions as Attorney General will take us back to those days…and then some.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.