President Trump bestowed upon himself a new honorific Tuesday—“chief law enforcement officer” of the country— and protest quickly followed. Critics said he was flouting the Constitution (again) and abusing his power (again) and demonstrating a total lack of understanding of the most basic civics (again).
White House officials pushed back, arguing that Trump did not err in his pronouncement and that the president absolutely can tell the Department of Justice what to do. He is, they pointed out, the head of the executive branch.
“This narrative that the president is not allowed to direct the DOJ in a criminal matter is preposterous,” a senior White House official complained to RealClearPolitics late Tuesday evening.
The administration was bristling from criticism on a day that they felt the president had been particularly magnanimous and was deserving of credit. Trump had granted clemency to seven people serving prison sentences for everything from gambling fraud to tax evasion to drug charges. He fully pardoned another four. Many, including former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, were of the high-profile variety.
Air Force One had just landed in California when Trump started talking to reporters on the runway. Was he making the job of Attorney General Bill Barr impossible? The top cop had told ABC News exactly that in regard to the president’s tweeting about the sentencing guidelines for former campaign confidant Roger Stone. Trump had said Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress, tampering with witnesses, and obstruction of justice, was getting a raw deal.
The DOJ had suggested seven to nine years in jail. Senior Justice Department officials then backtracked to say that such a sentence “would not be appropriate.” Barr told ABC that Trump had nothing to do with the reversal, and that the change in sentencing was always part of the plan.
Tuesday night on the tarmac, Trump said of Barr, “I do make his job harder.” Then, he boasted of the power of his Twitter account, saying that “social media for me has been very important because it gives me a voice.” And regarding the Stone case, he said he “chose not to be involved.”
It wasn’t that his hands were tied. In the president’s opinion, “I’m allowed to be totally involved. I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country, but I’ve chosen not to be involved.” His attorney general was “a man of great integrity,” he continued. But if the president wanted to interfere, “I could be involved if I wanted.”
Along with the pardons, this didn’t sit well with his critics. Bernie Sanders, the new front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said that the clemency was selective and emblematic of “what a broken and racist criminal justice system looks like.” Meanwhile, the independent Federal Judges Association called an emergency meeting of its members to discuss the intervention of Trump and the DOJ in politically sensitive cases like Stone’s.
But the administration wants critics to look to history. “Presidents have shut down criminal matters and directed them to be ramped up,” the senior White House official told RCP. “The president has every right to do this.”
They note that President George H.W. Bush directed the DOJ to investigate police violence after the Los Angeles riots in the Rodney King case. They point out how President Obama offered a statement after a grand jury handed down its decision not to charge police officers in the death of Eric Gardner. They trumpet the fact that President Reagan unilaterally ended an antitrust probe of airlines.
Each is evidence, the White House official said, of how “presidents have shut down criminal matters and directed them to be ramped up. The president has every right to do this.”
And so what, another senior administration official added, if the president wants to call himself “chief law enforcement officer”? He can hire and fire the attorney general. He can order him around too.
“The DOJ is part of the executive branch and the president is the head of this branch,” the official said. The criticism, then, was “fake news at its worst and contradicted by history.”