The prosecutor who quit over the Roger Stone sentencing is sending a powerful message about political weaponization.
The resignation of a Justice Department prosecutor over the sentencing of Roger Stone is a major event. The prosecutor, Jonathan Kravis, apparently concluded that he could not, in good conscience, remain in his post if the department leadership appeared to buckle under White House pressure to abandon a sentencing recommendation in the case of Mr. Stone, the associate of President Trump who was convicted of obstructing a congressional inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Three of his colleagues quit the Stone case but remain with the department: Mr. Kravis left altogether. Even though the president for years has derided federal law enforcement officials, accusing them variously of conflicts of interest and criminality and weakness in not pursuing prosecution of his political opposition, Mr. Kravis’s is the first resignation in the face of these assaults.
Dramatically forceful responses to Mr. Trump’s assaults on rule-of-law norms have been all too rare. A resignation can set off an alarm bell for an institution whose failings an official might be unable to bring to light in no other way, or as effectively. It upholds rule of law norms in the very act of signaling that they are failing. It makes its point with power and transparency, and stands a chance of rallying support from those who remain in place and compelling other institutions like the press and Congress to take close notice.
The government official who resigns for these reasons is, paradoxically, doing his or her job by leaving it.
Why did the Stone matter so clearly warrant resignation? The president has used Twitter to denounce and pressure department officials, senior administration lawyers and the Mueller team. When he did that to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and the special counsel Robert Mueller, they stuck it out. They must have thought that the best way to serve the rule of law was to hold off or humor the president, maintaining regular order as much as possible even as Mr. Trump raged that he could not fully control his department.
And there is a case to make for their choice. Mr. Sessions stood up to the president and adhered to his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Mueller was not fired and completed his investigation in the Russia matter.
But this time, the president got what he wanted. Mr. Trump attacked the department sentencing recommendation as an unacceptable “miscarriage of justice” that was “horrible and unfair.” And then the department did switch positions on the sentencing, criticizing its own prosecutors for failing to be “reasonable” in their recommendation to the court.
This, then, could be seen as the extreme case, whereas normally a lawyer might decide that “working from the inside” is the best, most responsible answer to the president’s behavior.
Still, if resignation had been seen earlier as viable, even necessary option, it’s possible that we would not have arrived at this point. Mr. Sessions could have resigned over the president’s public calls for him to ignore his recusal requirements or prosecute Hillary Clinton. If Mr. Mueller had resigned over the president’s attacks on him and refusal to sit for an interview, he might not have completed his report but he would have rendered a devastating and unequivocal judgment. And, without a report he felt compelled to rely on, Mr. Mueller might have felt himself more at liberty to testify in detail to Congress.
Resignation, while an act of professional conscience, can be effective in pushing back against violations of norms of impartial, professional law enforcement insulated from political pressure. According to the Mueller report, having been finally pushed too far, the White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign in June 2017 over Mr. Trump’s directive to fire Mr. Mueller. What did the president do? He backed down.
That was then. Mr. Trump has established a new normal at the senior legal leadership of his administration. The rhetoric of Mr. Sessions’s successor, William Barr, suggests that he accepts, to a disturbing degree, the president’s desire for a politically responsive Justice Department. Mr. McGahn’s successor, Pat Cipollone, defended the president in the impeachment proceeding with arguments of the kind, in tone and variance from the factual record, you would expect to hear from Trump surrogates on Fox News.
We can’t know if a wave of resignations early in this administration would have made a difference in preventing or tempering the unfortunate appearance, and perhaps increasing reality, that the administration of justice is being politicized. During the Watergate scandal, the Saturday Night Massacre resignations by Justice Department leaders certainly made an impression on President Richard Nixon, who then appointed an effective independent prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.
Resignations can be a shock to the system, just what is needed to clarify the issues, force Congress to pay attention and alter a president’s behavior.
What government lawyers are prepared to accept, the conditions under which they are willing to work, still matters. Institutions can be severely damaged in one huge blow or whittled away.
Of course, resignation as an act of protest is not a choice to be lightly made by those who join an administration and find themselves in disagreement with the president. It is not justified by policy decisions that a subordinate official would have made differently.
But the president should not be able to command this loyalty when the conflict concerns something as fundamental as the professionalism and independence of the Justice Department — and involves a case in which the president has a direct personal interest and the defendant is a political associate.
For senior administration lawyers to just manage these kinds of conflict — ignoring Mr. Trump’s tweets and disregarding his inappropriate if not unlawful presidential orders — allows the abnormal to become normal and professional standards to crumble.
The prosecutor who resigns rather than remain in a decaying institution is upholding crucial norms. To his credit, at least one lawyer has chosen to do this, even if it is the rare case and it may have come too late to protect the Department of Justice from Mr. Trump’s demands and Attorney General Barr’s apparent willingness to accommodate them.
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump’s threat to destroy some of the country’s treasured icons.
Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump’s threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Mr. Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend. When a reporter asked if that meant “no” because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Mr. Esper agreed. “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”
The furor was a classic controversy of Mr. Trump’s creation, the apparent result of an impulsive threat and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism. When Mr. Trump declared on Saturday that the United States had identified 52 potential targets in Iran if it retaliates for the American drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, none of those targets qualified as cultural sites, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified correcting the president.
Nonetheless, when Mr. Trump casually said on Twitter that they included sites “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” the resulting uproar only got his back up. Rather than simply say that cultural sites were not actually being targeted, the official said, he decided to double down the next day with reporters flying with him on Air Force One, scoffing at the idea that Iran could “kill our people” while “we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site,” saying, “It doesn’t work that way.”
Donald J. Trump
….hundreds of Iranian protesters. He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have…..
….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!126K people are talking about this
The comments drew protests from Iran and other American adversaries who said they showed that Mr. Trump is the aggressor — and not just against Iran’s government but against its people, its history and its very nationhood. Even some of America’s allies weighed in, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain breaking with Mr. Trump by issuing a statement through an aide warning against targeting antiquities.
Military leaders were left in the awkward position of trying to reaffirm their commitment to generations of war-fighting rules without angering a volatile commander in chief by contradicting him. Mr. Trump’s remarks unsettled even some of his allies, who considered them an unnecessary distraction at a time when the president should be focusing attention on Iran’s misdeeds rather than promising some of his own.
“We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of the president’s staunchest supporters in Congress, said on Monday. “We’re in a conflict with the theology, the ayatollah and his way of doing business.”
Mr. Graham, a retired military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said he delivered that message to Mr. Trump in a telephone call on Monday. “I think the president saying ‘we will hit you hard’ is the right message,” he said. “Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems. We’re trying to show solidarity with the Iranian people.”
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Trump’s threats would only encourage despots of the world to target antiquities themselves.
“America is better than that, and President Trump is flat-out wrong to threaten attacks on historic places of cultural heritage,” said Mr. Reed, a former platoon leader in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “Destroying some of these culturally significant Iranian sites wouldn’t be seen as just an attack against the regime in Tehran, it could be construed as an attack on history and humanity.”
Iran, home to one of humanity’s most storied ancient civilizations, has 22 cultural sites designated on the World Heritage List by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, including the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire later conquered by Alexander the Great. Others include Tchogha Zanbil, the remnants of the holy city of the Kingdom of Elam, and a series of Persian gardens that have their roots in the times of Cyrus the Great.
The United States is a signatory to a 1954 international agreement to protect cultural property in armed conflict and has been a leader in condemning rogue nations and groups that destroy antiquities, including the Islamic State’s destruction of sites in Mosul, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, and the Taliban’s demolition of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
Experts said that what Mr. Trump described would likewise violate international law. “We and others accused ISIS of war crimes when they did this,” said Jeh C. Johnson, a former secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama who previously served as the top lawyer at the Pentagon. “Certainly, in aggravated circumstances, it should be considered a war crime.”
Mr. Johnson and others said there could be situations that are murkier, if the actual cultural value was less clear or it was being used as a military facility. Still, Mr. Johnson said, “my guess is his national security lawyers did not vet that tweet.”
Indeed, the president’s advisers ever since have sought to deny that he was actually making a threat even though his initial tweet said the sites — including those of cultural importance — “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if Iran responded to General Suleimani’s killing.
“President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the next day on Fox News. “Read what he said very closely.”
But just hours later, Mr. Trump made very clear that he thought cultural sites were in fact legitimate targets. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told the reporters on Air Force One as he flew back to Washington from his winter holiday in Florida. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
By Monday, the White House was again denying that Mr. Trump actually made a threat. “He didn’t say he’s targeting cultural sites,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, told reporters. “He said that he was openly asking the question why in the world they’re allowed to maim people, put out roadside bombs, kill our people, torture our people.”
You needn’t believe the hype about President Donald Trump being a 21st-century media wizard to concede he has a special talent for powershifting through the gears of the news cycle to blow past whatever current event might threaten his presidency. Whether it’s a function of Trump’s volatility or a measure of his craft, he has a knack for freezing out damaging news by creating his own news storms that transfix the press. He fires members of his Cabinet and staff, over-reaches with executive orders, picks fights with a Gold Star mother and football players, engages in ad hominem, and insults entire friendly countries.
In recent days as bad news has swelled around him, Trump has taken to screaming “treason” and “coup” at full volume to divert the news flow. But this time Trump’s hydraulics don’t seem to be working. Instead of Trump flooding the news cycle, the news cycle has begun to flood Trump. His special talents—if they really exist—have begun to fail him, and he seems to know it. In two recent press sprays, with the Finnish president and on the White House lawn, Trump’s peach complexion has gone scarlet with rage as he dodged and parried all the bad publicity.
You’d go scarlet, too, if you were Trump. Democratic members of the House of Representatives have begun marshaling evidence to prove Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors as part of the House’s formal impeachment inquiry against the president. Two whistleblowers have come forward to allege abuse of power by Trump in his dealings with Ukraine’s president. An IRS whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging that a political appointee at the Treasury Department attempted to interfere with the annual audit of the president or vice president’s tax returns. A federal judge has ordered Trump to turn over his tax returns to the Manhattan district attorney. In recent days, three Republican senators (Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska) have broken ranks with their cowardly colleagues to directly criticize Trump for urging China to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.
Even the president’s closest ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has turned on him. On Monday, Graham phoned into “Fox & Friends” to denounce Trump’s decision to dump the Kurds and embrace the Turks. The move is “shortsighted and irresponsible” as well as “unnerving,” Graham said, and his anger was shared by other Republican legislators. Inside the Pentagon, the brass also appeared to favor Graham’s position over Trump’s.
At the rate all this bad news is surging, Trump must be pining for the good old days when a new development in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation was his greatest source of grief, and a nasty blast from his Twitter feed was potent enough to repel bad tidings. But suddenly Trump’s best-defense-is-a-good-offense talents are no longer sufficient to fend off the damage. In recent days, Trump has sought and failed to stall the impeachment express with tweets attacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., but the press has largely ignored these pathetic lines of defense. In the old days, journalists would have rushed to their keyboards to dissect the Pelosi and Schiff tweets and placed under their magnifying glass Trump’s Monday tweet about the Kurds and Turks in which he referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.”
But as the Smiths once sang, that joke isn’t funny anymore. These days, the press seems more interested in charting the course of impeachment and the accumulating evidence than playing “go fetch” with Trump’s tweets. Not even Pat Robertson, a Trump stalwart if ever there was one, wants to follow the president on this one. Trump “is in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven” if he spurns the Kurds, Robertson said.
Trump’s old techniques are failing—and not just due to the volume of the bad news. What’s unique about this phase of his presidency is that he’s being attacked with so much damning information from so many directions and so many different power centers that he can’t keep up. Not even a street fighter with Bruce Lee’s skills could repulse this sort of pile-on.
As somebody who has never counted Trump out, I believe he could restore his good fortune with some self-discipline. Midway through the first year of Trump’s presidency, columnist (and doctor of psychiatry) Charles Krauthammer took to calling the “general hysteria” the press and the political classes expressed for the president “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” According to Krauthammer and others, this reflexive, partisan hatred for Trump crippled people’s judgment of the man. Krauthammer urged us to stop listening to Trump’s id and pay more attention to what Trump was doing and what he had done. Finally, it appears, the press and Democrats have independently taken Krauthammer’s advice. As we enter impeachment autumn, the only principal still acting deranged is Trump himself.