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Trump's chilling distortion of 'law and order'

CNN logo CNN 6/21/2020 Opinion by Julian Zelizer, CNN Political Analyst
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: Geoffrey Berman, Donald Trump, William Barr © Provided by CNN Geoffrey Berman, Donald Trump, William Barr

US Attorney General William Barr triggered yet another firestorm this week when he announced that Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, would resign. The news — which came late Friday night — immediately created concerns that this was a politically motivated ouster. The situation took a surprising turn later that night when Berman refused to go. And by Saturday things had become strange.

Faced with Berman's defiance, Barr sent a letter to him that read, "Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so." Trump, however, told reporters he was not involved with the decision, a claim that few will believe given how closely Trump and Barr have aligned their actions.

Some backstory: Berman's office has investigated high-level associates of President Donald Trump, including the President's former attorney Michael Cohen and Trump confidante and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and Trump had reportedly been upset with him for some time.

Barr's move came two days after former national security adviser John Bolton alleged in his new book that the President offered to interfere in a Southern District investigation of a Turkish bank. Trump told Turkish President Recep Erdogan that the problem (that is, the investigation) would be fixed when the prosecutors were "replaced by his people," Bolton wrote.

Though Berman was once seen as a Trump loyalist put into office during the purge of Preet Bharara, the President appears to have now turned against him.

Berman, however, didn't play along. "I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning," he announced Friday.

Berman added, "I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption." But on Saturday, after it became clear Berman's deputy would take over, the US Attorney said he would leave office.

The news of Berman's ouster is one more piece of evidence that Trump is the anti-law-and-order President, despite his claims to the contrary. Trump touts law and order when it suits him, but attacks the courts and erodes our judicial system when it comes to his agenda and actions. He loves to tweet former President Richard Nixon's famous catchphrase — law and order — which Nixon used in the 1968 election against Hubert Humphrey to promise an end to the riots and protests that had shaken the nation. But the truth is, the Trump administration has repeatedly taken steps that undermine our nation's confidence that this White House adheres to the notion that nobody is above the law.

Barr has been the point man in this strategy. He brings a level of legal sophistication and political savvy that Trump lacks and has repeatedly placed the political interests of the President above the law. When the Mueller investigation wrapped up, the attorney general framed the findings of the report in a way that exonerated the President from wrongdoing. During the impeachment hearings and trial earlier this year, Trump reportedly leaned on Barr to limit the ability of legislators to obtain necessary information. And in Trump's post-impeachment attacks on inspectors general and US attorneys, Barr has proven willing to take the bold and controversial steps necessary to insulate his boss.

Under Barr, the Justice Department has supported an aggressive response to the Black Lives Matter protests. Millions of Americans have taken to the streets across the country to demand bold policing reforms that aim to stop the police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd. But Barr has denied that systemic racism is a problem in policing, and the Justice Department has stood firm, years after scrapping Obama-era police reforms.

The Justice Department also deployed armed forces against peaceful protesters at Lafayette Park. Rather than embracing the notion, which many conservatives would have once agreed to, that protecting individual human rights from unaccountable police officers is the way to ensure law and order on the streets, the Justice Department under Trump has instead pushed for a breathless acceleration of state policing power.

The restraints that have checked previous administrations have deteriorated, and we are now living in a moment when President Trump — with Barr's assistance — appears to believe that there are no law and order guardrails prohibiting what he can do.

Given the fact that Senate Republicans continue to back him, the President is not wrong in this assumption. Senate Republicans have played an essential role in allowing Trump to continue eroding our democratic institutions. As long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is willing to stand firm in backing the administration, the odds of any sort of serious check on these kinds of actions diminish.

The wildcard remains the courts. This week, the Supreme Court defied the President by ruling that he could not immediately end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, delivering a major blow to his anti-immigration platform. This decision came soon after Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch shocked conservatives by joining Chief Justice John Roberts and four liberals on the bench in a decision protecting gay and transgender persons from workplace discrimination.

Though the Supreme Court is now under a conservative majority, it is not an institution where members can be primaried out of their posts, and federal judges have the capacity to be true institutionalists, even in an era when many elected officials refuse to accept that role. Certainly, Chief Justice Roberts is following these events with a close eye. As the President bends law and order to fit his own agenda, the biggest question remains: How much are the federal courts willing to tolerate and at what point will they finally check the President in the dangerous campaign that he has undertaken?

Until the courts step in, the nation is in a dangerous place. The stories that have converged in the past few weeks have revealed quite clearly that law and order is under threat. The threat, however, isn't coming from the streets but from the highest office in the land.

This article has been updated to include news of Attorney General William Barr's firing of Geoffrey Berman and President Trump's response.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Julian Zelizer © Provided by CNN Julian Zelizer
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