Former federal prosecutor: ‘No one is safe’ if Trump can use DOJ to ‘prosecute’ his enemies and reward his ‘inner circle’

Former federal prosecutor: ‘No one is safe’ if Trump can use DOJ to ‘prosecute’ his enemies and reward his ‘inner circle’
HBO (Real Time with Bill Maher)

Some of the conservative Republican senators who are often described as “moderates” and voted to acquit President Donald Trump on two articles of impeachment — including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — claimed that the experience of going through an impeachment trial would inspire Trump to be more careful going forward. They were wrong: Trump set off yet another scandal when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) dramatically reversed its sentencing guidelines on veteran GOP operative Roger Stone following an angry tweet from the president. Someone who once worked in the DOJ as a federal prosecutor, University of Alabama law professor Joyce White Vance, addresses the Stone scandal in a February 12 op-ed for Time Magazine — and stresses that Trump is becoming even more of a threat to the rule of law.

“If a president can interfere in the way professional prosecutors conduct prosecutions, enforcing allegiance to him and stifling dissent, we no longer have a system of justice,” Vance warns. “No one is safe. Ultimately, a president could prosecute people he wants to jail and prevent prosecutions or lengthy sentences for his allies.”

On Monday, February 10, the DOJ released a sentencing memo recommending a prison sentence of seven to nine years for Stone. But the following day, after Trump’s angry tweet, the DOJ released a new sentencing memo urging a much more lenient sentence. This, according to Vance, is “such a sharp departure from the norms that it has caused anger and, in many corners, a sense of sorrow and grief among current and former prosecutors over what is happening at the Department (of Justice).”

Vance goes on to explain why Trump’s Stone-related tweets are so egregious.

“No one complains when a president sets policy direction for the federal government, including the Justice Department,” Vance notes. “They may not like a specific policy, but we don’t hear any argument that a president may not do this. In fact, it’s a key part of his job to set policy in executive branch agencies, including DOJ. But there is a sharp line dividing presidential leadership in setting policy, which is appropriate, from presidential interference in the conduct of a specific criminal case — which is not.”

Trump, Vance laments, repeatedly shows contempt for the system of checks and balances that the United States’ Founding Fathers envisioned.

“That quintessentially American view that no man is above the law has been the case up until the presidency of Donald Trump,” Vance emphasizes. “The rule-of-law approach to government means not only that a president must himself be accountable, but also, that he cannot be permitted to create special rules that he can use to benefit his friends or punish his enemies. Trump’s most recent efforts to manipulate the criminal justice system in this regard are like a four-star fire alarm that should summon the entire country, not just half of it, to put out the fire.”

Trump, Vance warns, is dangerous because he “wants special rules” and “wants different treatment than others get for those in his inner circle.” That “inner circle” includes Stone, a long-time Trump ally who, in November, was convicted on seven counts in federal court — including obstruction of justice, witness tampering and lying to Congress.

“If a president can lay claim to these expansive powers with a compliant attorney general at his side,” Vance warns, “then that president — who is fully above the law — has reduced our democracy to a sham.”

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