'Can't recall a worse day for DOJ': Trump's acquittal fuels his 'dictatorial' instincts as he obliterates the Justice Department's last shred of independence

REUTERS/Leah MillisPresident Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr.
  • Since President Donald Trump was acquitted last week in his impeachment trial, he and Attorney General William Barr have carried out a series of targeted firings and legal interventions that have the Justice Department in turmoil.
  • “Can’t recall a worse day for DOJ and line prosecutors,” a former prosecutor told Insider. “A robbery in broad daylight in the middle of Chicago is more subtle than Barr’s obsession to shield Trump and his co-conspirators.”
  • “I am aware of no precedent remotely like it in the history of the DOJ,” another longtime former prosecutor told Insider. “It seems to me to be a classic hallmark of a dictatorial [or] fascist government.”
  • One former senior DOJ official who worked with the special counsel Robert Mueller when he was the FBI director told Insider that the past few days had been “a devastating breakdown” in the checks and balances on Trump’s power.
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As Rep. Adam Schiff wrapped up his closing arguments in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial last week, he warned Senate Republicans that if they didn’t vote to remove the president from office for abusing his power, he would “do it again.”

“He has not changed. He will not change,” Schiff said. “A man without character or ethical compass will never find his way. He has done it before, and he will do it again.”

In the end, the Senate acquitted Trump in a nearly party-line vote, with key swing-vote Republican senators like Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander voting to acquit while expressing hope that the president had learned his lesson from the bitter trial.

Here’s what’s happened since:

  • Last Friday, Trump fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, the US’s ambassador to the European Union, both of whom testified against him in the House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., indicated that Sondland and Vindman were fired in direct retaliation for their impeachment testimony.
  • On Monday, Attorney General William Barr acknowledged that he had set up an “intake process” for the Justice Department to vet material that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, collected from Ukrainian sources about former Vice President Joe Biden.
  • On Tuesday, Barr and his top aides publicly overruled the career prosecutors working on the government’s case against the longtime GOP strategist Roger Stone and called for a lesser sentence than the one prosecutors had recommended. Barr’s intervention led to the withdrawal or resignations of all four prosecutors working on Stone’s case.

The Daily Beast reported late Tuesday that since his acquittal, Trump had privately urged Giuliani to continue working on obtaining damaging information on the Bidens and to update him and the DOJ on his findings.

“I think he feels like the chains are off now,” one senior administration official told the outlet. “It’s like things have taken a turn. The gloves are off. And everything that used to be hush-hush is now just … out in the open.”

Indeed, current and former officials told Insider they struggled to find any precedent for the “breakdown” of the Justice Department’s historic independence that has largely kept it insulated from political interference, with one saying Barr’s moves had turned it into “an arm of the Trump political machine.”

Rudy giuliani(Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)Former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani.

‘A classic hallmark of a dictatorial [or] fascist government’

Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the DOJ, didn’t mince words when reacting to the string of developments.

“Can’t recall a worse day for DOJ and line prosecutors,” he told Insider. “A robbery in broad daylight in the middle of Chicago is more subtle than Barr’s obsession to shield Trump and his co-conspirators.”

Referring to Barr’s decision to create a direct line for Giuliani to funnel information to the DOJ about the Bidens, Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who worked with members of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, told Insider: “I am aware of no precedent remotely like it in the history of the DOJ. It seems to me to be a classic hallmark of a dictatorial [or] fascist government.”

Barr’s facilitation of Giuliani’s research is all the more striking given that the former New York mayor is the subject of an investigation by the Southern District of New York into whether his efforts to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine violated foreign lobbying laws.

The Trump team’s push for political dirt on Biden from Ukraine – carried out while Trump withheld vital military aid from the country – was the crux of the impeachment inquiry.

Typically, the Justice Department’s investigations begin with evidence of potential criminality that’s uncovered by professional investigators with agencies like the FBI, the IRS, the DEA, and others.

Those investigators then examine the evidence and present it to nonpartisan career prosecutors at US attorneys’ offices across the country who make a decision whether or not to prosecute based on the law and the facts. Those cases are then submitted to the DOJ for approval on the basis of whether there’s sufficient evidence to file charges to a grand jury.

But in this case, for Giuliani, who is acting as Trump’s personal agent, to instigate an investigation of Trump’s political rival is an “unimaginable” and “gross perversion” of the system,” Cotter said. “It undermines the credibility the DOJ has spent over century building. It reduces the DOJ to an arm of the Trump political machine.”

One former senior DOJ official who worked with Mueller when he was the FBI director told Insider that the past few days had been “a devastating breakdown” in the checks and balances on Trump’s power.

Barr, this person added, is essentially functioning as Trump’s bag man and is “the single most powerful weapon in the president’s arsenal.”

Cramer echoed that point, adding that Barr “must realise he is running an organisation where he has no respect beyond a few at Main Justice.”

In light of Trump’s and Barr’s actions over the past several days, some Democratic lawmakers have called for Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s inspector general, to launch an investigation. That said, there’s nothing stopping the president from ousting Horowitz as well.

Reports over the past few months have said the president is weighing firing Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who played a pivotal role in sparking the impeachment inquiry when he informed the House Intelligence Committee of an “urgent” and “credible” whistleblower complaint against Trump, in accordance with federal law.

“The buffers are quickly disappearing,” Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and an expert in criminal and constitutional law, told Insider. “The usual buffer is a president who doesn’t intervene and an attorney general who protects an independent Justice Department. But it appears that we have neither now.”

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