I feel like I witnessed, quite by accident, a Frank Capra moment, right out of the Jimmy Stewart classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” yesterday, (and that I was virtually the only one who witnessed it.)
I turned on my TV, which happened to be on C-Span-2, which shows the floor of the Senate whenever the Senate is in session. Only two senators were present. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconisn, who was presiding, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who was at the podium to speak. Before I could change the channel, I heard Flake say:
In the annals of the “presidents say the darndest things,” last week’s Twitter outburst will stand out, at least for me, because the president attacked the attorney general of the United States for simply doing the job that he swore an oath to do.
I DVR’d the rest of Flake’s statement, and transcribed it, and will offer it below. But first a little background.
Flake’s version of “Conscience” slammed Donald Trump as neither a real conservative nor characterologically fit to be president. His formerly bright future in Republican politics was soon destroyed.
This year, when his Senate term was up, Flake faced a primary challenger who was fully tweet-supported by Trump. Flake decided to retire. That, at least, freed him up to speak his mind as often as he liked, including his real feelings about Trump.
What I stumbled into on C-Span-2 was an example of him doing that. I don’t know how often he has done this, but it was pretty cool — even if it seemed to test the old brain teaser about whether, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it makes any sound.
Other than presiding officer Johnson, who had to be there, and a lot of clerks who were bustling around but not paying any attention to Flake, the retiring senator had the Senate chamber virtually to himself. But before I could change the channel I got hooked. To follow Flake’s soliloquy, you need to know about the tweet to which Flake referred in his opening remarks, above.
Two incumbent Republican members of the House, Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, have been under investigation for various kinds of fraud. Sessions inherited the investigation from the Obama administration, the case developed, and the two Republicans are now charged with crimes.
Collins faces 13 counts of alleged securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements related to an alleged insider trading scheme. Hunter is charged with using campaign funds for personal use, wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations and conspiracy. Both have pleaded not guilty. And they are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But President Trump showed no interest in the validity of the charges.
In his tweets, Trump flayed Sessions for jeopardizing what might have been safe seats for the GOP if the incumbents hadn’t been under indictment. Here’s the tweet:
Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff……
In a second tweet, Trump said:
The Democrats, none of whom voted for Jeff Sessions, must love him now.
Trump generates so many of these brouhahas that I actually hadn’t noticed this one until I stumbled on Flake on C-Span. But, with hardly anyone listening or watching, Flake explained on the Senate floor the self-serving blindness of Trump’s approach to law enforcement, thus:
Of course, it wasn’t the first time the president has so diminished himself. But this particular slander was leveled at the attorney general for having the temerity to prosecute members of Congress who happen to also belong to the president’s political party.
That’s right. The president attacked Mr. Sessions, by name, for refusing to cover up allegations of Republican misconduct. The president’s concern was not for justice, but for the political fortunes of the accused, because their congressional seats might now be at risk of falling to Democrats.
In doing this, the president is projecting a vision onto the system of American justice that is both bizarre and, more important, destructive.
Of course the only truly shocking thing about this statement from the president is that given what all of us have become accustomed to during this presidency, or even worse, have become numb to, this twitter eruption was not at all surprising. This numb acceptance is an appalling statement on the very real threat to our democratic institutions, Mr. president.
At this point, it might be too late for tutorials to the American justice system. But it certainly bears repeating that in order for justice to truly be served, justice must be based in empirical truth, and must be absolutely carried out absolutely independent of politics. Period.
No president, any president, administers the justice system in America, any more than he or she decrees what is objective truth. In this country, justice and truth operate quite independent of the dictates of even the most powerful of offices.
The reasons for this point are obvious to most, but we know by now that this particular president seems to have a profound unease with both justice and truth, and so has been at unrelenting war with both, virtually since the moment he swore the oath.
Not because there is any deficiency in justice or truth that requires his intervention, mind you, but for other less noble reasons.
The president seems to think that the office confers on him the ability to decide who and what gets investigated in these United States and who and what does not. Weekly, it seems, this president has been threatening to “get involved’ in the functions of the Justice Department, sometimes intimidating, sometimes plainly threatening to corrupt the independence of justice in America.
He has overtly expressed a desire for his political opponents to be investigated. And almost two years into his presidency, he presides over boisterous rallies where the last election is relitigated. And chants of “lock her up” fill the halls. None of this is normal, or acceptable. But it is not mere recklessness.
It seems to be a deliberate program by which he intends to weaken the institution of American justice, threaten its independence and perhaps set the stage for some future assault on it: the firing of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and perhaps even the special counsel.
It has been said that the president deserves to have an attorney general of his choice, a top lawyer with whom he is compatible. This is true. The president’s appointment powers are clear, and all of his appointees serve at the pleasure of the president. But what no president deserves is a top lawyer who is simply there to do his bidding. The attorney general is not the president’s personal lawyer. And his job is not to protect the president from damaging facts, or to turn the power of American justice onto the president’s enemies.
Or to direct Justice Department investigations in any way that is either politically motivated or presupposes guilt or innocence, or favors any outcome whatsoever, other than that which is supported by the evidence and truth.
The attorney general’s job description, as tweeted by the president last week, bears scant resemblance to the attorney general’s job in a constitutional democracy.
And so I rise today because the framers gave us, the Article 1 branch of this government that they conceived, the responsibility to curb such reckless behavior. Thus far, I believe, that we’ve been all so incredulous at the daily excess — and ever hopeful, hopeful beyond any reason, that this president would at least begin to inhabit the office in a more responsible fashion – that we have been somewhat uncertain what to do.
First and foremost, we must speak out. We cannot be quiet when the moment requires us to stand up for the democratic norms under which this system functions and without which this system ceases to function.
The president has repeatedly and over time breached these norms. If we say nothing then we become accomplices in the destruction of these democratic norms. The United States Senate is not the place to come for deniability. We must do what we can to curb the destructive impulses of this White House.
We must encourage the administration of justice. That means voicing our support for Mr. Mueller and his team. We’ve passed bipartisan legislation out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, legislation to protect the special counsel. I call on the majority leader to bring this legislation to the Senate floor.
We must also say in no uncertain terms that to call this investigation a ‘witch hunt’ is wrong. To call Mr. Mueller’s [team] thugs is wrong. Relentlessly slandering the attorney general of the United States is wrong. It is a travesty, and it is unbecoming of the office of the presidency.
And I would say to the attorney general: Stand firm. You’ve spent your life in public service, in the service of your country.
At the risk of being presumptuous I would say that these days, right now, during this crucial period when we have a president who in a malign fashion is actively testing the limits of power in the administration of American justice and in the independence of American justice, while your determination to safeguard the independence of Justice Department at the time that you have been under assault by the president, has verged on heroic.
In your long career, you will render no more consequential service to your country: Stand firm, Attorney General Sessions.
I appeal to the leadership of this body to speak out. You don’t have to speak out at every twitter outburst. But when the president calls on the Department of Justice to act as an arm of the Republican Party, then the leaders of the Republican Party in this body need to stand and say that the president is out of bounds.
Mr. President, we all have our pulls to conscience. Most recently, for me, I hear the whisper so well described a few weeks ago. The whisper over my shoulder that says: “We are better than this. America is better than this.” [This is a clear reference to the feelings of the late John McCain about Trump’s conduct in office.]
In a time of rank tribalism, Mr. President, we need to remember that we are all Americans. That is our only tribe. It is to the rule of law and the ideals of our founding that we owe our allegiance. I yield the floor.