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Point of View: Trump shows his hand on the rule of law

Leslie Batchelor
Leslie Batchelor

How can we be certain that a president has turned away from the rule of law and embraced a politics of naked power?

We harbor suspicions when he lies for political advantage, bullies political opponents, and brags about being able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

But we know for sure the rule of law is at risk when a president intervenes in a criminal case to protect a crony who has been convicted by a jury of obstruction of justice. Last week’s drama in the Roger Stone prosecution should finally cause all of us — in both parties — to heed the alarm bells ringing in the federal government.

What happened is not in dispute. A grand jury charged Stone with witness tampering, obstructing the Mueller investigation and lying to Congress. A jury convicted him on all counts. The U.S. Probation Office calculated his advisory range of imprisonment as 87-108 months. On Feb. 10, over the signature of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, career prosecutors filed a reasoned sentencing memorandum that asked for a sentence within that range. They did not request anything unusual, even though Stone made troubling threats — including against the judge — and sought for months to undermine a congressional inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

On Feb. 11, senior DOJ leadership repudiated the prosecutors’ recommendation and filed a new memorandum asking for “far less” than the sentence the guidelines recommended.

President Trump claims he had no role in this. His tweet attacking the sentencing recommendation was, we are to suppose, mere venting. The DOJ says it had already decided to file a contradictory sentencing memo.

But timing is not the issue. DOJ leadership bent to the will of the president in a criminal case of intense personal interest to him.

The DOJ has a long history of serving as an institution Americans can trust to resist partisanship and the temptations that accompany political power. Prior attorneys general would never have undercut career prosecutors to further a president’s personal agenda.

So now we know we were right to suspect this president of disdain for the rule of law. We see him luxuriating in the knowledge that his naked power can turn even the DOJ from its duty to deal justice even-handedly.

If the president succeeds in bending the Department of Justice to his own self-glorifying political purposes, we will have allowed him to undermine the ideals that hold our republic together.

Batchelor is president of the Center for Economic Development Law, an Oklahoma City law firm. She formerly served as counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno and as deputy associate attorney general.