Benjamin Wittes is the editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Yesterday, he decided to revisit a piece he wrote back in May 2016 warning of what a prospective President Donald Trump might do to the administration of justice in this country. With the benefit of hindsight, he concludes that his forebodings “could not—unfortunately—have been more spot-on.”
Wittes also produced a helpful list to demonstrate his prescience:
- He has demanded substantive outcomes from investigations.
- He has demanded investigations of political opponents.
- He has raged against the norms that prevent these wishes from being fulfilled.
- He has attacked—publicly and by name—people who have acted honorably to defend those norms.
- He fired the redoubtable FBI director whom I flagged as an inconvenient bulwark—for precisely the reason that James Comey was functioning as an inconvenient bulwark.
- He has harassed Comey’s management team and demanded publicly their replacement.
- He has made the environment for those assistant U.S. attorneys committed to their jobs so uncomfortable that one literally sat in my office and told me that he was going to resign because “I don’t want to stand up in court any more and say, I’m [his name] and I represent the United States.”
- He has appointed an attorney general he specifically intended to protect him and go after his opponents.
Predictably, Wittes is scathing in his assessment of the president’s performance.
This is banana-republic-type stuff. One year into Trump’s term in office, his character has not changed. The president of the United States—as John Bellinger warned as early as December 2015 and as I elaborated on in March of 2016—remains the principal threat in the world to the national security of the United States. His aspirations are as profoundly undemocratic and hostile to the institutions of democratic governance as they have ever been. He announces as much in interview after interview, in tweet after tweet. The president has not changed, and he will not change. Whether he has grown or will grow is not even an interesting question.
If you’re interested, Wittes goes on to find reasons for optimism as he assesses that Trump’s war on his own government has not succeeded.
Trump aspires to corrupt the Justice Department, but he has not yet managed to corrupt the Justice Department. He aspires to use the FBI to go after his political enemies, but he has not yet managed that either. He aspires to an intelligence community that will validate his premises, but he has not managed to get one. At the end of the day, Trump has not managed to shut down the Russia investigation. He has not managed to fire his attorney general or his deputy attorney general—both of whom he evidently hates. He has not even managed to rid himself of the lowly deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe—though he so clearly wants that particular scalp—who will retire in March and not be removed before then.
In fairness, though, Wittes doesn’t sugarcoat the damage that has been done and that could easily be done in the near future. He’s written a very through and thoughtful article and I recommend that you take the time to read it.