We thought we were inured to Donald Trump's habit of making outrageous comments, on Twitter and elsewhere, that demeaned his high office. But Trump's call for the Department of Justice to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party and his comment Friday that he's "disappointed" with Justice Department officials who don't see things his way aren't just offensive; they're ominous.
The president is the head of the executive branch and appoints the attorney general, the FBI director and other law enforcement officials. In choosing those officials he can establish broad policy priorities. But presidents of both parties have recognized that they aren't free to politicize criminal investigations. One president who ignored that principle — Richard M. Nixon — had to resign in the face of certain impeachment after it was revealed that he had tried to subvert the FBI's investigation of the Watergate break-in.
Trump seems not to have absorbed that unmistakable lesson from history. In a radio interview on Thursday he said it was the "saddest thing" that "because I'm the president of the United States I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I'm very frustrated by it."
But not so frustrated that he didn't signal to the Justice Department what he thinks it should be doing, both in that interview and again in a torrent of tweets on Friday.
At 6:57 a.m. he tweeted: "Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems."
Fourteen minutes later he followed up with this: "People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!"
Finally, in reference to a complaint by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) about a fundraising agreement between Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, Trump tweeted: "Pocahontas just stated that the Democrats, lead [sic] by the legendary Crooked Hillary Clinton, rigged the Primaries! Let's go FBI & Justice Dept."
Then, as he was leaving the White House to embark on a trip to Asia, Trump told reporters: "A lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me."
Trump's defenders will no doubt dismiss his comments as expressions of personal disappointment that will be shrugged off by Justice Department officials. That defense is a variation of the famous comment by John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general. Addressing civil rights leaders alarmed by Nixon's rhetoric, Mitchell said: "Don't watch what we say — watch what we do."
One problem with that explanation is that Trump has not only said disturbing things about the administration of justice, he's done them — notably the firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey. What if his frustration boils over again and leads him to take similar action against other officials?
Another concern is that, while Trump's comments may not formally be directives, they indicate what he wants law enforcement agencies to do to stay on his good side. That creates public distrust in the integrity of the legal process even if officials at the FBI and the Justice Department really do ignore the president's words.
Similarly, Trump's lawyers insist that the president wants to be cooperative with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian meddling in last year's election and possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. But Trump has ridiculed the subject of Mueller's investigation as a "hoax" concocted by Democrats.
And although his press secretary said this week that Trump has no intention of firing Mueller, the president continues to give aid and comfort to Mueller's critics. For example, in a tweet Friday that recited a litany of supposed scandals crying out for investigation, Trump included "Uranium" — a reference to the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with U.S. mines holdings, to a Russian firm while Clinton was secretary of State. Trump and his supporters have suggested, unpersuasively, that there was something scandalous in that transaction.
On Friday, three House Republicans proposed a resolution calling on Mueller to "resign from his special counsel position immediately." They make the implausible claim that Mueller has a conflict of interest because he was FBI director at the time of the Uranium One sale, and the FBI under his leadership showed a "willful blindness" to attempts by Russia to corrupt the U.S. uranium industry. Trump's rants embolden such efforts.
The saddest thing, Mr. President, isn't that Americans expect you to refrain from politicizing the enforcement of the criminal law. It's that you continue to demonstrate that you don't understand why.