In my first post on this subject, I argued that 15 months into the Trump presidency, those who claim he’s a threat to democracy should have to point to actions he’s taken that support this assertion. I then submitted that Trump’s actions do not support claims that he threatens free speech, flouts the rule of law, assaults minority rights, or colludes with foreign adversaries.
In this post, I’ll argue that Trump’s approach to the Department of Justice is the antithesis of what we would expect from an administration that threatens our democracy or our freedoms.
An authoritarian administration would very likely make heavy use of the Department of Justice to further its purposes. After all, the DOJ, and in particular the FBI, possesses tools conducive to imposing an administration’s will — e.g., the power to prosecute, the power to spy, etc.
Keep in mind that the Justice Department is not an independent agency. Generally speaking, the president is entitled to exercise control over it, just as he does over other cabinet level departments.
But far from making the Justice Department his tool to combat enemies and suppress dissent, or even to protect his position, Trump appears to exercise little control over the DOJ. Instead, the Trump DOJ appears to operate with considerable independence.
For example, the Justice Department has stonewalled, or at least slow-walked, Congress in that body’s efforts to obtain documents pursuant to investigations it’s engaged in. The documents are sought by members of the president’s party and, if disclosed, are expected to bolster arguments being made on behalf of the president.
Trump would be well within his rights if he intervened to facilitate compliance with congressional requests for documents. No one could fairly characterize such intervention as authoritarianism. Rather, it would simply be the president exercising his role as boss of the Attorney General and the Assistant Attorney General (Rod Rosenstein).
But Trump has not interfered. Rosenstein, for whatever reasons, moves at his own slow pace. Frustrated members of Congress are left to threaten the impeachment of an official Trump could simply remove.
Again, if Trump were to interfere in this matter, it would not be an authoritarian move. It be the move one would expect, and I think hope for, from a president.
But Trump’s non-interference is strong evidence that this is not an authoritarian administration. If anything, it seems like an administration that tends to err on the side of passivity when it comes to the Justice Department.