Lock them up: How President Trump wades into justice cases
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WASHINGTON — Donald Trump raised eyebrows during the election campaign by calling for the jailing of his opponent. Now he's wading into all sorts of justice matters, opining on roughly five different cases this week about who should be prosecuted, who should be executed, who should be jailed, and how he deserves exoneration.
The president's allies have launched a multi-pronged attack on the Russia investigation, which he has repeatedly called a hoax. Pro-Trump media are pounding away at Robert Mueller's reputation, as he lays his first charges.
An initial formal call for Mueller's head came Friday from three congressmen in staunchly conservative districts — they presented a non-binding motion in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for the investigator to step aside.
Mueller was hailed as a universally respected figure when appointed this year, but is now under heavy political fire over his friendship with former FBI director James Comey, a likely probe witness, and over his failure to crack down on years-old allegations about corruption in uranium sales.
Trump has opined on this case and others.
In fact, his Twitter feed is filled with demands aimed at his own Justice Department. Over the course of a few days this week, the president has waded into no less than four justice matters and in a fifth case his public trashing of a defendant was raised as an issue, then he slammed the sentencing decision.
''Let's go FBI & Justice Dept,'' he wetted, urging law enforcement to look into favourable treatment Hillary Clinton received from the Democratic party during last year's primary against Bernie Sanders.
''People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!''
He also called for the death penalty in the case of the New York truck attacker, referring to him as a ''degenerate animal.'' A few hours later, Trump slammed the lack of a prison sentence for army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, whose lawyers are already trying to get the case dismissed over the president's frequent insults of the defendant. He's made similar remarks about the uranium sale. His mutterings about the Russia probe are myriad.
Trump even complained this week that he can't meddle in justice matters.
He told a radio interview: ''The saddest thing is because I’m the president of the United States, I’m not supposed to be involved in the Justice Department. I'm not supposed to be involved in the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing and I'm very frustrated by it. ... Why aren't they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and dossier? ... It's very discouraging to me. To be honest I'm very unhappy about it.''
A rare anti-Trump Republican sounded the alarm over this. Neoconservative writer Bill Kristol tweeted: ''What Trump thinks is the saddest thing about his presidency is basically that he's not able to be a Third World-type authoritarian ruler.''
It also struck some as a throwback to his campaign — where he threatened during a debate to prosecute Clinton and his rally crowds chanted, ''Lock her up!''
At that time, The New York Times interviewed political scientists who study failing democracies and they called his debate threat troubling. Adrienne LeBas of American University called it a risk to the rule of law and basic democratic norms, and said: ''For those of us who work on authoritarian regimes and hybrid regimes (such as Turkey)... this sort of thing is just eerily familiar.''
A colleague told the newspaper she was less worried about an authoritarian power-grab in the U.S. Unlike Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, she said, American institutions are strong enough to prevent a president from serious abuses.
Someone who worked closely with Mueller said she can't imagine he'd be fired.
''I find it very hard to believe that will happen. I hope not to be proven wrong,'' Anne Milgram, a former federal prosecutor and attorney general of New Jersey, told a podcast hosted by her ex-colleague Preet Bharara.
''(If that happens) I think that's an unbelievable crisis for the rule of law.''
The first strike against Mueller has come from politicians who risk no backlash.
The three lawmakers who co-sponsored the condemnatory motion won their districts last year by 38, 29 and 50 percentage points — they are Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
A growing number of districts look like these in an increasingly polarized. rural-versus-urban America, where many politicians have little fear of general elections and greater fear of angering their partisans and risking a primary on their own side.