Whatever hope Americans might have had that their president would turn over a new leaf and respect the independence and judgment of federal prosecutors was quickly dashed in Day 2 of the new year. President Donald J. Trump needed just a few dozen words on Twitter early Tuesday to demonstrate that he’s just as paranoid, petty and partisan as ever, fulminating on the “Deep State Justice Dept” and calling for former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin to go to jail.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others,” President Trump tweeted.
Admittedly, this isn’t a shocking development. Mr. Trump has been attempting to distract from special counsel Robert E. Mueller III’s investigation into possible collusion with Russian officials for months — often with attacks on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and outrage that she was not prosecuted for her handling of government emails. Ms. Abedin must have seemed like a timely target. The content of her emails discovered on a laptop belonging to her husband, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, were released just days earlier.
Yet Mr. Trump had seemed to turn a page on his attitude toward Mr. Mueller last month. In a recent interview with The New York Times, the president said he expected Mr. Mueller to be “fair” and appeared satisfied to allow the former FBI director’s investigation to proceed. It was a striking change of attitude and raised hopes that Mr. Trump’s all-out war on his own Justice Department as some kind of bastion of Barack Obama-loving FBI agents, U.S. attorneys and careerists manipulating the facts for political ends might finally be coming to an end. Alas, that’s clearly not the case.
Ms. Abedin’s lax handling of emails is pretty well-worn ground from the last election. In 2016, the FBI reported that she had used her personal email account while working for Secretary Clinton because she simply found it easier to print documents. But her connection to Mr. Weiner, an imprisoned sex offender who resigned from Congress in disgrace and from whom she has filed for divorce, and the fact that she is of Asian descent, has always made her an attractive target to President Trump and his allies. His reference to the “pictures on submarine” has to do with a 2016 case in which a Navy sailor was sentenced to one year in prison for taking unauthorized photographs of classified areas of a nuclear attack submarine while it was in port in Connecticut. Presumably, he’s trying to imply some sort of double standard.
In any event, it’s pretty thin gruel. What’s far more disturbing than the possibility that Ms. Abedin was lax in her handling of email years ago is the notion that a president of the United States can reach out and, for reasons of self-interest or spite, unleash the full weight of the Justice Department on his political enemies. It was a wretched possibility when Richard Nixon was president, and it’s just as bad more than four decades later. And not only for the country. Mr. Trump would get a lot more “benefit of the doubt” from the public (and better approval ratings) if he started acting like he was innocent of wrongdoing. Trusting Mr. Mueller, a Republican appointee and well-regarded FBI director, to be fair, at least until it’s proven that he isn’t, should not be too big a stretch for anyone.
Nearly one year into the Trump administration, we understand the familiar pattern: If under attack, lash out with great fury at the attacker — or maybe even someone completely unrelated to the issue at hand. Belittle that person, signal supporters to join in the attack, hope everyone will descend to your level and, when some do, play the victim of a media conspiracy. Was it too much to hope that 2018 might bring some maturity, some statesmanship, some greater self-awareness to the mix? In certain far-right circles, it’s already become only somewhat crazy to suggest the Justice Department is conducting a “coup” to force Mr. Trump from office. Do the purveyors of such malarkey even half believe that? Such conspiracy theories begin with Mr. Trump’s early morning attacks. He needs to cut them out.