ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Heritage of stench

This editorial was originally published Sunday in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

The Department of Justice is supposed to be above politics.

But this mostly has not been so.

Is there a way to make it so?

The Washington Post’s revelations about the extent to which the Trump White House’s chief of staff, the then-president, and other Trump aides and allies pressured the department to find evidence of voting fraud in the 2020 presidential election is disturbing.

It is disturbing because, even when little or no evidence could be found, they persisted: Find it anyway!

It is disturbing because the fraud squad pressed for negation or nullification of the 2020 presidential election via the appointment of new electors in the Electoral College. There is no constitutional basis for this — and no constitutional mechanism for it.

Finally, it is disturbing because it shows so little respect for the DOJ and so little understanding of its proper place in our system.

The truth is that, since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Department of Justice has been more often politicized than not. That is, presidents have generally treated the attorney general as their own lawyer and not the nation’s. And they have generally treated the department as an arm of one man’s presidency rather than the fountain of the administration of justice in this land.

This has been the rule, not the exception, and true of almost all modern presidents — Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes and Obama. All appointed hacks and cronies as AG. All treated the Justice Department as an extension of their own political interests and part of the politics of their presidencies.

It was surely true of longtime FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. He saw the FBI as his personal fiefdom— there to suit his own personal and political agenda.

So there is a heritage of stench at the Department of Justice — a heritage that is not new. And it brings shame upon the DOJ and our system of laws.

Only President Gerald Ford and his AG, Edward Levi, and now President Joe Biden and his AG, Merrick Garland, have consciously and with deliberate intent set out to treat Justice as it should be treated — as utterly and fiercely independent.

Perhaps attorneys general should, like recent FBI directors, be appointed for terms overlapping presidencies, though this has hardly rid the FBI of politics. Still, who would not take William Webster or Robert Mueller over Hoover?

Imagine that the next president is a Republican and he vows to keep Mr. Garland in the job. This would be positive.

After George Herbert Walker Bush became president, he elected to keep President Ronald Reagan’s last AG, Dick Thornburgh, in the job. Not the same as appointing or retaining a Democrat, but continuity and professionalism won over cronyism, nonetheless.

The best solution overall to a political Justice Department is the Ford one: Have a bit of humility and respect for the Constitution and pick a nonpolitical AG. Put men in the service of the law, rather than the reverse.

The DOJ is not there to serve a presidency or a president. It is not a place for campaign politics or campaign managers. It should be beyond political meddling and above reproach. It should be the one department that we can always depend on to follow the law and seek justice. It should always make us proud. It belongs to our country, not our president.

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