By Sally Yates for The New York Times
The spectacle of President Trump’s now daily efforts to humiliate the attorney general into resigning has transfixed the country. But while we are busy staring at the wreckage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ relationship with the man he supported for the presidency, there is something more insidious happening.
The president is attempting to dismantle the rule of law, destroy the time-honored independence of the Justice Department, and undermine the career men and women who are devoted to seeking justice day in and day out, regardless of which political party is in power.
If we are not careful, when we wake up from the Trump presidency, our justice system may be broken beyond recognition.
Over the past few days, many people from both parties have rightly expressed their dismay at how President Trump has publicly lambasted the attorney general, noting the president’s lack of loyalty to a man who has been consistently loyal to him.
And while this is indeed true, it misses the larger and more dangerous consequences of the president’s actions.
President Trump claims that it is very “unfair” that Mr. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, a recusal indisputably necessary given Mr. Sessions’ role in the campaign that is now under investigation. At its core, the President’s complaint is that he doesn’t have a political ally at the Justice Department to protect him from the Russia investigation. And he is apparently trying to bully Mr. Sessions into resigning so that he can put someone in place who will.
The president hasn’t stopped there. He has also tried to goad Mr. Sessions into re-initiating a closed investigation of the president’s former political rival. And all of this takes place in the wake of the president’s attempts to persuade the former F.B.I. director James Comey to back off the Michael Flynn investigation, and then firing Mr. Comey when he didn’t.
President Trump’s actions appear aimed at destroying the fundamental independence of the Justice Department. All the while, he’s ripping the blindfold off Lady Justice and attempting to turn the department into a sword to seek vengeance against his perceived enemies and a shield to protect himself and his allies.
It’s almost impossible to take all of this in. And while we risk becoming numb to the daily barrage of alarming news, we can’t lose sight of the fact that this is beyond abnormal. It’s dangerous.
The Justice Department is not just another federal agency. It is charged with fulfilling our country’s promise of equal and impartial justice for all. As an agency with the authority to deprive citizens of their liberty, its investigations and prosecutions must be conducted free from any political interference or influence, and decisions must be made based solely on the facts and the law.
To fulfill this weighty responsibility, past administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have jealously guarded a strict separation between the Justice Department and the White House when it comes to investigations and prosecutions. While there may be interaction on broad policies, any White House involvement in cases or investigations, including whom or what to investigate, has been flatly forbidden.
This independence is essential for the career men and women to be able to do their jobs. I served in the Justice Department for over 27 years, the vast majority as a career prosecutor in both Democratic and Republican administrations. I know from firsthand experience how seriously the career prosecutors and agents take their responsibility to make fair and impartial decisions based solely on the facts and the law and nothing else.
And the outcome of that analysis does not vary based on who occupies the White House. While some in the public may disagree with particular decisions, the Justice Department prosecutors and agents must have the independence to call it like they see it.
The strict separation between the Justice Department and the White House applies to even the most mundane of criminal investigations, and nowhere does it matter more than when the investigation reaches into the White House itself. In short, no one at the White House should have anything to do with any decisions about whom or what to investigate or prosecute. Period.
We must do more than rubberneck as we drive past this car crash. We all have a responsibility to protect our Justice Department’s ability to do its job free from interference. The very foundation of our justice system — the rule of law — depends on it.