William B. Turner
This is implicit in many of the things various people have written about him, but it bears stating explicitly: Donald Trump betrays zero knowledge or understanding of the law or legal proceedings.
Most presidents of the United States have had no legal training. Although lawyers predominate in most legislatures, it is very uncommon for presidents to have any legal training. Andrew Jackson served as an attorney before becoming president, as did Abraham Lincoln. During the twentieth century, no president has actually worked as an attorney before becoming president. Barack Obama has a law degree and taught at the University of Chicago law school, but he has no experience practicing law.
But most presidents learn. Trump’s complete ignorance of law and legal procedure is important for two reasons. Specifically, he recently stated that he has the right to do whatever he wants with the Department of Justice. This is wrong and troubling for many reasons.
But also, one would think that a man who’s fortune rests on real estate and who routinely threatens people with law suits would have learned something along the way. He must have had multiple conversations with lawyers in his life, but he seems to have learned precisely nothing from any of them. It’s kind of amazing. It certainly speaks ill of his intelligence and intellectual curiosity, or lack of it.
But as to Trump and his bad attitude toward the Department of Justice. “Justice,” by definition, should be disinterested, in the sense that whoever dispenses justice should care not a whit for who s/he is dispensing it onto, or on behalf of whom s/he is dispensing it. We know we too often fail to achieve this standard in the United States. There is mounds of evidence for how skin color impacts the justice, or lack of it, one gets in the United States. This is one of the many, many problems in our society that the president agrees to take some responsibility for by assuming the office, and it is a difficult problem that no one has an easy solution to.
But asserting, as the Donald has done, that a federal judge of Mexican descent has a conflict of interest because he has proposed to build a wall at the Mexican border definitely does not help.
Despite the recognition that our justice system has a significant problem with racial bias, still every individual judge enjoys the presumption of competence and the requisite dispassion until someone can prove otherwise. As with the Trump campaign’s whine to Congress about Mueller having lots of their emails going to the wrong place, so it is telling that Trump’s lawyers in the Trump University case, the case that the Mexican judge was hearing, never filed a formal complaint alleging conflict of interest, which would have been the correct way to raise the issue if there were an issue to raise, which there wasn’t.
There are lots of valid legal reasons why Trump in particular should not have a free hand with the Department of Justice. Trump much too clearly pushes to its logical extreme the sick Republican attitude towards the government of the United States. They see it exclusively as a tool for pursuing their entirely partisan goals, with no regard for the public good or the concerns of anyone they think did not vote for them.
When Franklin Roosevelt pushed Congress to enact New Deal programs, he did so because he believed they would help the entire country, not just Democrats, and no one ever asked any unemployed worker for his party affiliation before putting him or her to work on a project. It didn’t matter.
Republicans love to assert that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican. He may well have been. Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law under Democratic leadership, the Republican Party could still claim to be the Party that freed the slaves as their appeal to African American voters. In the 1960 presidential election, the two major Party candidates competed for the votes of the few African Americans who could cast them. When Lyndon Johnson cajoled Congress into passing major civil rights legislation, when he met with King in the White House, he did not ask about King’s partisan affiliation. He believed that the nation as a whole would benefit from the elimination of racial segregation, so he bent his incomparable political skills to getting the law passed.
Trump has reduced the already parlous Republican partisan impulse to doing only what Trump thinks will benefit him and his fellow billionaires. He seems to have no concept of the public good in his head at all. Beyond his lack of knowledge about the law and legal procedure, the Donald is entirely too personally interested in the outcomes to have any good reason to interfere in the doings of the Justice Department. This is even more obvious from the various statements he has made about investigating Hillary Clinton. No one who has any responsibility for the administration of justice should ever himself have shouted, or encouraged anyone else to shout, “Lock her up.” That is wildly inappropriate. It unfits him all by itself.
The president appoints the Attorney General, with the confirmation of the Senate. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that has become the focus of such controversy since the Donald’s Justice Department started making noises about reversing it, was a policy choice about enforcement priorities that President Obama directed his Attorney General to implement. It is impossible for Department of Justice not to cooperate to some extent with the president.
There are, however, lots of important legal and policy limits on how the president should interact with the Department of Justice. As with his understanding of law and legal procedure, Trump apparently knows none of them.
This is just one more on the long list of ways in which Trump is grossly unqualified to serve as president of the United States.