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Michael J. Stern, Opinion columnist

“The Real Housewives” have nothing on the Department of Justice when it comes to drama. I don’t mean to be flippant. But if I can’t marvel at the absurdity of the nuclear meltdown that is gripping the institution to which I dedicated my professional career, I’m afraid I will cry.

I was concerned when the punchline “Donald Trump” came to be preceded by the title “president.” But my beloved DOJ was filled with career prosecutors whose dedication and integrity would keep the ship on course — even if the storm lasted four years.

I was confident that the traditions that made the Justice Department the most respected law enforcement organization in the world would surely allow it to weather any attorney general Trump could install.

But Trump has commandeered the department and sent a clear message: “Investigate me or people close to me and I will undercut years of your hard work, trash your reputation on Twitter, and create a Hobson’s choice between your integrity and your ability to earn a living. And if you pick the former, I will issue a pardon and undo all you worked for anyway.”

Unholy alliance of Trump and Barr

Since Republican senators refused to remove Trump from office, there’s nothing in his path. Trump is certainly getting no push back from Attorney General William Barr, who has revealed himself to be the second coming of Roy Cohn — Trump’s former personal attorney who was disbarred due to his sleazy legal tactics.

Barr’s first order of business was to release a misleading summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report — effectively urinating on what should have been a bonfire that burned Trump’s presidency to the ground. Then, Barr stonewalled congressional efforts to do what an honest reading of Mueller’s report should have done.

Things have only gotten worse since Trump survived his Senate impeachment trial. For a start, Barr has said he must personally approve any investigation into corruption by a presidential candidate or campaign. That’s the DOJ equivalent of a GPS warning: “Red light camera ahead.”

President Donald Trump at the White House on Jan. 29, 2020, and Attorney General William Barr at the Justice Department on Jan. 13, 2020.
President Donald Trump at the White House on Jan. 29, 2020, and Attorney General William Barr at the Justice Department on Jan. 13, 2020.

No agent or prosecutor is going to tap the attorney general on the shoulder and ask permission to investigate the man Barr lives to protect. That means Trump and his campaign can solicit assistance from foreign adversaries in this year’s presidential election, and no one will stop them.

As for existing investigations, Barr is second guessing his department’s work and even changing it to be more favorable to Trump. After Trump tweeted his dissatisfaction with DOJ’s sentencing recommendation against political ally Roger Stone, Barr ordered prosecutors to propose “far less” time in prison.

His order was such an abuse of power, all four of the Stone prosecutors withdrew from the case and 2,600 former federal officials, myself included, published a letter asking Barr to resign.

Failing institutions: Stone prison term: Will courts hold Trump accountable after Congress, Mueller fall short?

But it was mission accomplished for Trump and Barr. On Thursday, Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison, substantially less than the seven to nine years requested by the Stone prosecutors.

A similar sequence occurred after Trump expressed unhappiness with the prosecution of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Prosecutors who had recommended up to six months in prison later said probation would be appropriate. And Barr has now ordered a “re-investigation” of Flynn’s case, presumably to undermine Flynn’s guilty plea.

Pardoning the swamp, not draining it

Trump does not always need Barr. When he can manipulate justice alone, he does, as he showed last week when he issued 11 pardons and commutations. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, convicted of trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat, was immediately released from prison. Trump also pardoned one of Rudy Giuliani’s former business partners, whose family happened to donate $85,000 to a Trump Victory fund and $150,000 to the Republican National Committee.

Every person reading this should be angry that they would still be sitting in prison if they committed the same crimes as the people Trump pardoned. That’s because Trump has created a separate system of justice for his friends, political allies, and wealthy donors. Trump didn’t drain the swamp, he pardoned it.

After impeachment: Senate delivers brutal dose of reality and ensures future Trump corruption

And there are bigger threats looming. One is the prospect of demoralized agents and prosecutors who see corruption, understand the meaning of futility, and simply stop trying. An even more dangerous contaminant is the “Lock Her Up!” campaign chant that has metastasized into an unabashed effort to hunt and cage Trump’s political enemies.

Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, James Comey and Andrew McCabe have all moved from Trump’s tweet list to Barr’s hit list. Yes, Clinton and McCabe have been told they will not be prosecuted, but not for lack of trying. In fact, it has been reported that the McCabe grand jury balked at DOJ’s requested indictment.

People reading this are probably thinking “What difference does it make if the president ordered DOJ to investigate some government bureaucrats?” It makes a difference.

The independence of our Justice Department is what distinguishes us from countries in which people are not free. Countless pundits have referred to Trump as an authoritarian. It’s not hyperbole.

If Trump can harness the power of the U.S. Department of Justice to do his personal bidding, we are no longer the America we thought we were. If we cannot rely on the U.S. Department of Justice to do the right thing, we are lost.

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump has commandeered the Justice Department and pardoned the swamp


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