There’s a lot to be appalled by in President Trump’s interview with The New York Times, including his continued vilification of former FBI Director James B. Comey. (In addition to accusing Comey of lying to Congress, Trump claimed that the former director tried to use a “dossier” of salacious allegations about Trump as leverage to hold on to his job.)
But the most offensive — and ominous — comments by the president concerned his attitude toward the rule of law.
Take Trump’s criticism of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from an investigation of Russian meddling in last year’s election.
“Sessions should have never recused himself,” Trump told the New York Times reporters, “and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.” (On Thursday, Sessions indicated that he had no intention of resigning.)
It’s tempting to treat this as a political story — Trump turns on toady! — but its real significance is that it shows that Trump has no understanding of why Sessions had to recuse himself. That misconception reflects a larger ignorance of important legal norms.
Trump seems to be under the impression that Sessions recused himself because he misled the Senate Judiciary Committee about whether he had met with representatives of the Russian government during last year’s campaign. Trump said that Sessions “gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t. He then becomes attorney general, and he then announces he’s going to recuse himself.”
This gets Sessions’ recusal wrong. Sessions recused himself not because of his confirmation testimony but because he had been active in the Trump election campaign. As he put it in a March 2 statement, he recused himself to fulfill a promise he made to the Senate that he would consult ethics officials about how to proceed if “a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
Trump also seems to think the attorney general is his personal lawyer. Actually, as Sessions’ statement acknowledged, he also has an obligation to the law and to the Senate that confirmed him.
Trump’s buyer’s remorse about Sessions wasn’t the only evidence in the interview of the president’s eccentric views about the rule of law. He suggested at one point that the FBI director reports directly to the president. (In fact, that official is part of the Justice Department chain of command, though as a member of the executive branch he is ultimately accountable to the president and, obviously, can be fired by the president.)
Finally, when Trump was asked if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would be crossing a “red line” if he investigated Trump’s family finances "unrelated to Russia," the president replied: “I would say yes,” adding “I think that’s a violation.” Pressed as to whether he would fire Mueller if the counsel ventured into that area, Trump said: “I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
In fact, Mueller’s commission empowers him to investigate not only “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
So, if Mueller’s investigation of ties between individuals connected to the Trump campaign and Russia did lead him to scrutinize Trump family finances, he would be acting well within his mandate.
The question is whether in that case Trump would try to have Mueller fired to protect himself or members of his family from a criminal investigation. His comments in the New York Times interview seem to leave that possibility open. Some might see those comments as a veiled threat or even an attempt to obstruct justice. Even if Trump never removes Mueller, those words may come back to haunt him.
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