For anyone who spent the last four years wondering if anyone would face any consequences for acts of misconduct, malfeasance, or outright criminality done at the behest of now-former President Donald Trump, the last few weeks have provided what must be a satisfying amount of schadenfreude.
First, a panel of New York state judges issued a ruling which suspended the law license of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. This was done based on what the panel called “uncontroverted evidence” that the man who rose to public consciousness as a hard-charging federal prosecutor “communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald J Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at re-election in 2020”.
A week later, it was Trump’s eponymous real estate company and his long-serving chief financial officer Alan Weisselberg whose time in the barrel had come. The 73-year-old accountant — a Trump family mainstay since Donald’s father Fred Trump Sr ran the family business — appeared in a Manhattan courtroom along with Trump Organization attorneys to answer for an indictment charging both the man and the company with defrauding both state and federal tax collectors.
And on Monday, a group of lawyers who tried to get a federal judge in Michigan to overturn that state’s election results based on a collection of sloppy conspiracy theories and questionable affidavits appeared in a Zoom courtroom. They were there to convince that same judge not to slap them with a glut of sanctions for filing such a frivolous complaint in violation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Not only did the judge not appear convinced in the slightest, but her questions to the assembled attorneys was withering enough to bring one of them to tears.
After watching Trump and his allies routinely break longstanding norms of presidential conduct and commit violations of law that experts say would have resulted in arrests absent his hold on the presidency, many Democrats and Republican critics of the former president have hailed these recent developments. Surely, they say, this is evidence that Trump and his inner circle will face some measure of accountability for the damage wrought on the country, particularly in light of what happened at the Capitol on January 6th.
But some of those Trump critics are worried that something is missing — something big.
What concerns the legal and political experts contacted for this story is the deafening silence that has come from Congress and the United States Department of Justice on the subject of one Donald John Trump.
“Merrick Garland’s Justice Department has shown zero interest, zero will to dig into anything Donald Trump has done, whether it’s obstruction of the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, election interference, or January 6,” said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor who spent eight years trying cases in the Southern District of New York.
Honig, whose recently released book Hatchet Man examines the politicization of the Justice Department under former Attorney General William Barr, took pains to stress that he is not advocating for prosecutors to “get” the former president as some form of payback, and explained that he does not believe it is the proper role of a prosecutor to “just decide that someone’s got to nail this guy somehow, some way”.
But at the same time, the former Assistant US Attorney called Garland’s reluctance to examine the conduct of the former president and his associates a “dereliction”.
“Trying to avoid a fight because it’s going to be ugly and messy and difficult is a mistake,” he said. “I think at a certain point, you’re just not doing your job as a prosecutor.”
The former District of Columbia Circuit Judge and former Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General has more than a passing familiarity with a prosecutor’s role and is no stranger to investigating politicians. As an Assistant US Attorney in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he played a role in sending DC Mayor Marion Barry to prison on a drug possession charge.
One person who has worked with Garland in the past and is familiar with how he operates opined that the Attorney General, in all likelihood, does not see his new role atop the Justice Department as that of a mere prosecutor because he and President Biden are hoping to rehabilitate the DOJ’s reputation as a non-partisan actor.
Yet other observers are convinced that the department will have to get into the mud eventually, even if it’s because Garland’s hands are forced by external events.
“If the Justice Department is not inclined to pull the threads that are sitting in front of them that were left behind from this administration, there won’t be any accountability,” said former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Steele suggested that the piecemeal bits of accountability that have emerged over the last few weeks represent “just a small portion of what is likely a much bigger piece”. But he wasn’t sure that the Biden administration has the fortitude to see how deep any such rabbit-hole goes, citing Garland’s decision to leave much of the task of looking into Trump-era abuses to the department’s Inspector General.
“They’re going to use some third-party operator who doesn’t have power and authority to… mask over not doing anything… and create this perception that they’re doing investigations or whatever, when in fact they’re not,” he said.
Biden and his spokespeople have frequently stressed that the president does not intend to instruct Garland as to what he should be investigating. But Steele, a former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, said Biden could make clear his desire for the Justice Department to undertake a full accounting of the Trump years without engaging in the blatant manipulation typified by his predecessor.
The former RNC Chair added that Biden — and Democrats in general — should not fear what would be inevitable complaints from Republicans that any attempt to investigate anything that has happened over the past four years amounts to politization or weaponization of the department. The benefit of restoring some semblance of pre-Trump norms at the DOJ and avoiding a GOP backlash, he said, are outweighed by the urgent need to get to the bottom of January 6 and other abuses.
“The hard reality is that the guy opposite you busted the hell out of those norms, didn’t give a s**t about those norms, twisted those norms for his own agenda, and you’re sitting here thinking the norms are gonna save you? They [Republicans] are using those norms against you. They will not save you.”
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