Messages with consequences

Another thought about the Trump versus the FBI melodrama:

Mr. Trump’s current campaign threatens the autonomy of the F.B.I. and the Justice Department, which was seared into the public consciousness after Watergate, according to veterans of the legal system. “Starting with Jimmy Carter, every president has embraced norms that preserve the independence of the D.O.J., law enforcement and intelligence matters from the White House,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “What is happening now is a violation of post-Watergate norms.”

What that passage doesn’t quite make clear is what Watergate has to do with it. Watergate made it eye-scorchingly clear how crucial it is to have federal law enforcement be independent of the president, so that he doesn’t get away with committing crimes while in office. Trump acts out every day the very reason he needs to stop acting out what he acts out every day – his megalomaniacal belief that the Justice Department is his Justice Department and has to do whatever he tells it to do. The independence of the DoJ is a bulwark against authoritarian government…even though it can be authoritarian itself, because nothing is simple. Trump and the Republicans are systematically breaking down that bulwark. This is dangerous, and a constitutional crisis.

David Strauss, a University of Chicago law professor, said Mr. Trump’s accusations were not mere political rhetoric, but messages with consequences. “It’s got to undermine public confidence in the F.B.I. to a certain degree. And it’s got to undermine morale at the F.B.I. and the Justice Department to an even greater degree,” he said.

“We have a president who seems to have no understanding of the professional ethos of the Justice Department, who has no understanding how these people think about their jobs,” he added.

Quite. That’s what I was saying about merit and skills and Trump the empty balloon.

Especially upsetting, some former officials said, is how Mr. Trump has publicly taunted specific individuals — a top F.B.I. official, an F.B.I. lawyer and an F.B.I. supervisor.

“It’s one thing for the president to criticize political appointees — although it is quite odd for him to criticize his own political appointees,” said Alan Rozenshtein, a lawyer who left the Justice Department’s national security division in April and now teaches at the University of Minnesota law school. But to attack career employees at the F.B.I. who are barred by regulations from publicly responding, he said, “that’s really bad.”

Some agents are leaving as a result. Josh Campbell, who spent a decade at the F.B.I. and worked directly for Mr. Comey at one time, wrote in The Times on Saturday that he was resigning so that he could speak out. “These political attacks on the bureau must stop,” he wrote. “If those critics of the agency persuade the public that the F.B.I. cannot be trusted, they will also have succeeded in making our nation less safe.”

One F.B.I. supervisor in a field office said public shaming of his colleagues had wiped out any desire he had to work at the bureau’s headquarters in Washington. “I’d rather chew glass,” he said.


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