Authoritarian governments almost always operate in a style that resembles organized crime outfits. Despite their ostentatious populism, such regimes exist to enrich thuggish rulers and enable corruption in high places. The Trump administration is a perfect example.
But in order to maintain an aura of legitimacy, especially in a country with democratic norms and traditions, authoritarian bosses constantly proclaim their devotion to justice, their determination to right wrongs, and their adherence to law and order. So even as President Donald Trump and his attorney general, Bill Barr, pervert the legal system to cover up official crimes and protect presidential cronies, they are creating a narrative of justification for those acts.
From the very beginning of the Russia investigation, Trump has aimed to derail investigations of appointees and associates who might implicate him in criminal activity. He urged James Comey, then the FBI director, to bury the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s unlawful conduct. Then he fired Comey, and later he repeatedly tried to get rid of special counsel Robert Mueller. The Mueller Report describes in appalling detail a dozen attempts by Trump to kill the investigation.
At the same time, Trump and his lawyers sent clear messages to all the gang members caught up in the investigation: Don’t talk. We’ll take care of you. They “dangled” pardons to buy silence, with Trump openly considering clemency for the potential witnesses he praised as “brave” and “strong.” His former campaign manager Paul Manafort signed and then violated a cooperation agreement with Mueller. So did Flynn. Longtime adviser and dirty tricks specialist Roger Stone never talked, although he knows everything.
While Trump’s efforts to stop the investigation continued behind the scenes, the public face of his propaganda apparatus declared incessantly that the Russia probe was “a hoax.” Not only was there no reason to investigate Russia; according to Trump, the real culprit in 2016 was Ukraine, which Trump also blamed for framing Manafort. (Discovering, or perhaps inventing, evidence that will “exonerate” Manafort is among the chief preoccupations of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s trips to Ukraine.)
Never mind the meticulously documented findings of nearly every U.S. intelligence agency and official including his own FBI director, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee and the Mueller investigation. And never mind the multiple convictions of Flynn, Manafort, Stone and others in Trump’s orbit.
The logic of Trump’s ongoing campaign is plain: If the investigation was a fraud, then the prosecutions of Trump associates that emerged from that investigation were, by definition, unjust. But the president can rectify those “injustices” — by granting pardons to the men who could have testified against him.
It’s as if a mob boss had the authority to pardon any underlings who might implicate him (instead of having them whacked).
Emboldened by the Senate’s impeachment acquittal, despite his obvious guilt, Trump now feels free to fulfill the obstruction conspiracy. He is certain that the Senate Republicans — not to mention his wholly owned attorney general — will do nothing to oppose the brazen scheme. They are all implicated in his criminality now.
By uttering a few little squeaks of protest, they help him create a scrim of normality around his gangsterism. So various senators tut-tutted Trump’s latest intervention in the sentencing of Stone as “inappropriate.” And so, Barr himself complained publicly that Trump’s tweeting about the Stone prosecution makes his job “impossible,” which simply means that Barr and the Republicans prefer assaults on democratic norms to occur in the back room, without too much noise.
When lawful government is restored someday, Trump may have to answer for having misused the pardon power for obstruction of justice. There is a firm precedent in the Justice Department’s investigation of former President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Until then, the American system of justice and constitutional liberty will remain in the gravest jeopardy.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.