Trump wants to blatantly politicize the Justice Department, and his Fox News allies are trying to help

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

It’s hard to imagine more damning evidence that President Donald Trump has the soul of a despot than he provided Monday afternoon. In an explicit attack on the rule of law, the president publicly criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not making law enforcement decisions based on their impact on the Republican Party. The remark is a salute to Trump’s fawning allies at Fox, who have spent months castigating the Justice Department for refusing to act as an appendage of the president’s political will, and a reminder of the challenge for the mainstream press in contextualizing this type of day-after-day extremism.  

“Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” Trump tweeted at 2:25 p.m. EST on Monday. “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff.” The congressmen in question are apparently Reps. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Duncan Hunter (R-CA), indicted separately last month on federal charges of insider trading and campaign finance violations, respectively.

There are other flaws with the president’s tweet -- Collins’ indictment is based on his alleged actions during the Trump administration, and Trump’s response to the charges seems to cut against his “drain the swamp” campaign rhetoric. But don’t look away from what’s happening here: A president who has repeatedly demanded that the Justice Department prosecute his political enemies is now demanding that law enforcement also protect his political friends. We are looking at an ongoing, slow-moving constitutional crisis.

It’s unclear what prompted Trump to lash out against the notion of equal justice under the law. But the president spent much of the Labor Day weekend promoting Fox News’ criticism of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump blames that “witch hunt” on Sessions, who recused himself from probes touching on the campaign, allowing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint the special counsel last May.

Sessions has careened from Fox hero to villain over the course of the Trump administration. He was once celebrated on the right for pioneering the nativist anti-immigration arguments that became the heart of Trumpism. And as attorney general, Sessions has been one of Trump’s most effective cabinet secretaries, ruthlessly carrying out the president’s assault on people of color and immigrants. But Mueller keeps indicting Trump associates, and, in spite of some signs initially considered ominous or promising depending on your point of view, no one has indicted Hillary Clinton or the law enforcement officials involved in starting the Russia probe.

And so Trump’s propagandists turned on the first senator to endorse his presidential campaign.  

“These are television shows that often have more direct influence and impact on Trump than many of his senior staffers or top officials,” The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng reported Monday. “And now, many of the president’s all-time favorite hosts and media personalities are telling him, over and over again, to get rid of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as quickly as humanly possible.”

On Saturday night, for example, Jeanine Pirro, a longtime Trump friend who has met with the president and his top aides in the White House, opened her Fox News show by urging Sessions to either “resign immediately because you are not wanted or put on your big boy pants and be a real attorney general.” A “real attorney general,” per Pirro, is one who would stop Mueller and prosecute Clinton. Pirro sees that perfect candidate every time she looks in the mirror, and Trump has previously floated the idea of giving her a top role in his administration. Two days after Pirro’s rant, Trump sent his tweet.

Fox’s pundits are going to get behind Trump’s claim that Sessions should be actively working to help the GOP. On Tuesday morning, the hosts of Fox & Friends threw suspicion on the Collins investigation and suggested that the indictment should have come earlier to avoid hurting Republican chances to hold the seat. Even judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, who stood up for the prosecutors, framed the president's tweet as merely “fodder for the cannon of Bob Mueller and the never Trumpers and all those who wish the president ill.” If Fox’s prime-time hosts find time to talk about the story tonight (there is, after all, some pretty big Colin Kaepernick news), there is little doubt they will weigh in to support the president.

This steady drumbeat of criticism of Sessions from the right has made it easier for Republican officeholders to support Trump if he decides to push Sessions out. And that willingness of GOP leaders to play ball has, in turn, depressed the media coverage one might otherwise expect for the president openly calling for law enforcement to be used for political ends.

After arguing in March that Trump should not fire the attorney general, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), current chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), his likely replacement if Republicans hold the Senate, now signal that they would have no qualms with him doing so after the midterms.

While Trump’s comment drew widespread condemnation from journalists and ethics experts, Republican officeholders were largely silent. Reporters widely quoted Sen. Ben Sasse’s (R-NE) statement that “[t]he United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice,” in no small part because none of his colleagues spoke out.

Grassley himself was asked about the remark during a Fox interview Monday night. He seemed unconcerned with the prospect of the president openly stating that the attorney general should make decisions based on what’s good for Republicans. In fact, he argued that the Justice Department erred by not holding the indictments until after the election.

Without sustained bipartisan criticism, the rest of the press is having trouble putting the dangerous nature of the president’s argument in context.

“It feels like a century ago, but the whole Mueller saga started with an explosive and contested report that Trump asked the FBI to go easy on a political ally,” NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin remarked last night. “Now he tweets almost the same thing at his AG and I dont (sic) even see it on the [New York Times] homepage.”

He’s right. Look around. You’ll find that major newspapers are giving the story some play, but it’s not making front pages. The morning broadcast shows each mentioned the story today -- on ABC, it was termed a “pretty stunning tweet in a universe of stunning tweets from the president” -- but it’s a throw-in, one of many news items to get to.

By tomorrow, the press will have moved on completely.