If you came of age around the turn of the century, as I did, your political consciousness began roughly around the time of the 2000 election, which ended with the farcical Florida recount, the “Brooks Brothers riot,” and Bush v. Gore. Within a few years followed the Iraq War, the revival of torture, the politicized firing of U.S. attorneys and the politicized hiring of less-qualified conservative partisans for career positions at the Justice Department. And, of course, the extraordinary nighttime hospital confrontation wherein the White House counsel and chief of staff tried to get the bedridden Attorney General to reauthorize a domestic surveillance program that the Justice Department had deemed illegal by confronting him when, presumably, he would be too weak to resist. They failed in this effort in part because the deputy attorney general (acting in the AG role) learned of their plans and raced to the hospital to stop them, having his security team speed through Washington with sirens blazing and sprinting up the hospital stairs to arrive first.
The acting attorney general in that story was none other than James Comey, who is now the target of an incredible reputation-attacking campaign by the Republican National Committee, which has set up a “Lyin’ Comey” website to discredit the claims in his new book about President Trump. Trump fired Comey last year during the FBI’s Russia investigation, prompting calls for the appointment of the special counsel who Trump is also now thinking of firing. Amidst these developments, Trump announced a pardon earlier this month for Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Libby was convicted in 2007 of four felonies after interfering with an FBI investigation into whether someone in the Bush Administration had outed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative as retaliation for her husband’s New York Times piece challenging part of the White House’s case for the Iraq War.
When news of the pardon broke, Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that there was no link between the Russia investigation and Trump’s decision. But in an interview this week with Yahoo News, Peter Zeidenberg, who served as top deputy to Patrick Fitzgerald (the special counsel in the Libby case, whom Comey has now hired), demonstrated the absurdity of that claim. Asked whether Trump’s decision was intended to send a message, Zeidenberg replied: “I don’t see any other logic to it.” As Zeidenberg noted, Libby (thanks to a commutation from President Bush) was not in prison, and he was reinstated to the bar in 2016. So the timing of Trump’s pardon, while revealing, had nothing to do with Libby: “There was no urgency or critical need to step in right now except for what else was going on — Trump’s consigliere, Michael Cohen, had just gotten his office raided.” This interpretation is far more believable than those emanating from the President’s inner circle. (Another associate of Trump suggested this week that the President pardoned Libby because it gave him “a thrill”.) Nonsense. Trump is unambiguously sending a message to any of his associates who are now considering whether to cooperate with Robert Mueller. Libby, after all, lied to FBI investigators, committed perjury, and obstructed justice—acts for which Trump is now implicitly promising protection. Even if Mueller might be able to offer a deal that, say, reduces a ten-year sentence to a two-year sentence, Trump is making it clear that he can offer something even sweeter.
Libby’s reemergence in the news, like Comey’s, is a reminder that no matter how chaotic the Trump Administration may seem, it is the culmination of trends which go back at least 20 years. Consider this: To send a message that he would protect anybody who breaks the law on his behalf, a President who may himself have broken the law pardoned a Bush official who broke the law to protect people who illegally retaliated against whistleblowers who spoke out about a war that may well have broken the law, on behalf of a president who only ascended to the office because of an outcome-driven decision by conservative allies on the Supreme Court. The reemergence of key players in the Bush-era chapters of this story is merely the bluntest of numerous reminders that the GOP has proven itself quite willing to bend, ignore, and weaponize the law over the last two decades. The behavior of Trump and his circle may soon demonstrate that top Republicans are also willing to break the law—not even, as in the case of torture, for a policy that (however wrongheaded) they genuinely believe in, but simply to hold onto, and personally profit from, power. Mueller is likely to uncover a deep rot in Trumpworld, but it’s hard to deny that American politics has been heading in this direction for some time.