By Horus Alas
Purging the Justice Department in the Trump Era
The first partisan transfer of power in our republic took place in 1801.
John Adams and his Federalist Party had just lost the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson and his ascendant Democratic-Republicans. Shortly before his term ended, outgoing President Adams restructured the courts via the Judiciary Act of 1801 and appointed federal judges through midnight of his last day in office.
Each time a new party lands control of the White House, the Executive Branch and its vast array of staffing appointments become partisan spoils. The court system and the Justice Department, which encompasses the FBI and a host of other agencies, are among the most powerful and recognizable appointments open to the president.
As it should be easy to infer I’m mostly writing this piece in response to President Trump’s abrupt sacking of 46 federal prosecutors appointed by former President Obama. The president’s hit list included the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, who was initially expected to retain his post.
As one of my colleagues pointed out, it’s not uncommon for new presidents to dismiss old appointments and replace them with staff of their own choice. During Bill Clinton’s first term, for example, 93 U.S. attorneys appointed during George H.W. Bush’s presidency were asked to resign.
What differentiates President Trump’s sweep of the Justice Department from Bill Clinton’s is—hell, where do I begin?
Crucially, Trump’s rise to the presidency is marred by allegations that his campaign colluded with Russian agents to thwart Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Members of Congress have repeatedly called for an independent investigation into the matter, and one might reasonably expect the Justice Department to play a key role in the process.
But the Department of Justice is now headed by longtime Trump supporter Jeff Sessions, and all U.S. attorneys from the Obama administration have been jettisoned from their posts. The Justice Department can now be expected to operate with a distinctly pro-Trump lean which casts doubt on the federal agency’s ability to undertake a much-needed investigation.
We might also note the potential impetus that led President Trump to this abrupt purge of the department.
The firings were announced one day after Sean Hannity riffed on Obama appointments as “saboteurs” who were “hell-bent on destroying President Trump” via leaks coming out of his administration like a broken water main. Hannity remarked, “It’s very important for President Trump to act right now.”
As if on cue, he did.
Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman report for The New York Times, “The abrupt nature of the dismissals distinguished Mr. Trump’s mass firing from Mr. Clinton’s, because the prosecutors in 1993 were not summarily told to clear out their offices.”
As per SDNY attorney Bharara, he leaves behind an investigation into New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign fundraising, as well as Fox News’ settlement of sexual harassment claims brought forth by employees.
In the 200-plus years since John Adams first politicized justice appointments, our parties have fought over the spoils of war with ever-increasing degrees of pettiness.
We allegorize justice as an elegant woman with a blindfold, brandishing a sword and scales. Justice, as we all know, is blind.
But that’s not the case anymore. In our current political climate, she sees all too clearly, and she operates on the whims of the individual who sits behind a desk in the Oval Office.
Outgoing attorney Bharara remarked to The New York Times that if there were a “credible whiff that justice has been politicized, there’s nothing worse than that.”
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore’s Flickr account.
Horus Alas is a senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.