From the very beginning, Donald Trump has had difficulty understanding that the Justice Department is not like every other cabinet office. He does not have unilateral control of it. The Justice Department can bite back at him, and he doesn’t like it.
We were taught in school that there are three branches of government and they have checks and balances against one another. We know the three branches as the executive, legislative and judicial.
But within the executive branch, the Department of Justice is somewhat rogue; it can do lots of things that the president doesn’t want it to do. We are learning this very vividly with Donald Trump, his friends and cronies, and the powers of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who was appointed by the Trump Justice Department.
I have to admit that I never really knew that the Justice Department could hold the president to task until Watergate. Prior to Watergate, there had never been a modern case with a president overtly acting in a criminal way with utter disdain towards the law of the land. In my naiveté, I thought that presidents weren’t criminals, so the Justice Department would never need to investigate them. They went after other bad guys, particularly those depriving us of our rights such as voter registrars in the old Confederacy.
But as I and many others sleep-walked through classes on the powers of the Justice department, there were constitutional scholars and others who thought through what to do if the president did not follow the laws of the country. In the Watergate era of the early 1970s, we saw the theoretical become reality. President Richard Nixon had given Justice officials cause to think that he was involved in the cover-up of a felony crime and that he was obstructing justice. These were serious matters; he was initially trying to illegally tilt the presidential election of 1972. It turned out that he would win in a landslide without doing anything nefarious, but that was not the point. He and his “friends” were playing outside the rules, trying to tilt the table, and then deny that they had anything to do with it.
We know what special prosecutors Archibald Cox and then Leon Jaworski did to Richard Nixon (or more accurately, what Nixon did to himself and how Cox, Jaworski and others brought him to justice.) We know what Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr did to President Bill Clinton. In this case, Starr was not exactly neutral in trying to nail Clinton at all costs. Clinton obliged by failing to tell some simple truths in the beginning.
The Nixon and Clinton bouts with the Justice Department both happened in the prime of Donald Trump’s life. If he never learned in school that the Justice Department had special powers, he couldn’t help but learn it by growing up. He was not in some backwoods without access to media; he was in New York City and he was rabid about following the news on television.
So, for Trump to argue that he should be able to tell the Attorney-General and the rest of the Justice Department what to do reflects having learned nothing in his adult years about how government works. It’s possible that he didn’t learn anything; that he was stuck in some elementary school class in which the separation of powers was taught in a simplistic fashion.
So, in a sense, I’m willing to give Trump a break. He came into office not knowing the special powers of the Justice Department. The fact that he didn’t know this is consistent with him not know much of anything about how government is supposed to work.
He never should have been in the position; he never should have been put in this position. But sixty million voters collaborated to help him become president. Not many of them were concerned about him knowing how the levers of government are supposed to work.
Poor Donald entered the job of the presidency without knowing how he was putting himself at risk. For that reason, I have a little empathy. If he had had a few adults in the room when he decided to run, perhaps he would not be in this trouble. Unfortunately for him and the country, there now seems to be a greater lack of adults in his world than anytime since he became president.
At times like this, Dan Rather would say one word, “courage.” It’s hard to beat that.