Congress must either stand up for an independent Justice Department or remain silent as President Trump tries to turn the FBI and federal prosecutors into part of his personal political operation. Those are the two options, and right now too many of Trump’s fellow Republicans are still choosing silence.
Trump’s unprecedented verbal lashing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday had a soap- opera aspect — the president turning on one of his oldest supporters — but also far more troubling implications for his views on the department. In an interview with The New York Times, Trump specifically criticized Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, which is looking into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during last year’s presidential election. The recusal, Trump said, was “unfair’’ to him. Trump said he would not have appointed Sessions if he knew the attorney general would recuse himself from the investigation.
Why would he care? The only reasonable inference from the Times interview is that Trump expected Sessions to help influence the Russia investigation for him. Those are not the words of a president with nothing to hide, and they’re not the words of a president who respects the Justice Department’s independence and integrity.
Much of the GOP reaction on Capitol Hill, though, focused on defending Sessions, a former Republican senator. “No one in America can match the excellence of @JeffSessions as Attorney General,’’ tweeted Representative Steve King of Iowa.
Maybe that’s as far as elected Republicans dare to go in challenging the thin-skinned Trump, but they’re missing the point. Let Sessions defend himself. Trump showed a clear hostility to the department’s mission. In the same interview, he blatantly sought to influence special counsel Robert Mueller, hinting that he shouldn’t look too hard at Trump’s personal finances . . . or else. His words, in and of themselves, constitute an effort to obstruct justice.
And it will continue, with unforeseeable consequences, unless Republicans in Congress draw the proverbial line in the sand. On Thursday, reports emerged that Mueller is, despite Trump’s warning, investigating the president’s financial ties to Russia.
Congressional Republicans owe it to the American people to insist those investigations proceed untainted by political interference from the White House.