In defending his convicted co-conspirator Roger Stone, Donald Trump has attacked the investigators, the prosecutors, and the judge in Stone’s federal case. On Thursday morning, with encouragement from Fox News, he moved on to attacking members of the jury. Trump has continued to show that there is no line he will not cross, because there are no lines. In the wake of his acquittal in the impeachment trial against him by the Republican-dominated Senate, Trump is unbound. He’s not testing the limits of the law; he’s making it clear that he is the law.
At the same time, Attorney General William Barr has made it known that he is personally stepping in to manipulate how punishment is handed down in America: more for Trump’s enemies, less for Trump’s friends.
Since 2016, there has been no article that has proven its worth more times than Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” And one paragraph in particular clearly illuminates the last few days:
Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed.
Trump didn’t have to take over American media. Fox News came prepackaged before he even stepped onto the golden escalator. All Trump had to do was scream, “Fake news!” at every fact that squeezed onto a screen. The Republican Senate just upheld Trump’s right to disassemble the electoral system at his leisure. So now it’s time for collapsing that judiciary—and Trump isn’t even trying to do it without notice.
As The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, Trump has gone directly after U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, the judge presiding over the case of Roger Stone. This isn’t the first time Trump has demonstrated his willingness to demean a federal judge: He hadn’t even been elected when he attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel by claiming that his “Mexican heritage” made him biased in the Trump University case; and in 2018, Trump was so blatant in his attacks on District Court Judge Jon Tigar that even United States Chief Justice John Roberts objected. But Trump is targeting Jackson as part of what is clearly a campaign to create right-wing outrage. Trump has repeatedly hinted, and did again on Wednesday, that he will simply pardon Stone and Flynn when it comes down to it.
But pardoning them is not enough, not when he can use these cases to assault not just charges against Trump advisers who were caught and convicted for 2016 campaign activities, but the whole concept of impartial justice. Donald Trump isn’t hammering a judge who is being tough on a pal. He’s hammering apart the whole justice system.
On Thursday morning, Trump attacked the foreperson of Stone’s jury, saying that she had “significant bias.” What was the evidence of this bias? It was that the jurist—whom right-wing media outlets have, of course, named—made a Facebook post defending the four prosecutors who resigned after Barr stepped in to overturn their sentencing guidelines. The juror said that the prosecutors “acted with the utmost intelligence, integrity, and respect for our system of justice.” As with his demands that the intelligence community whistleblower in the Ukraine plot be outed and interrogated, Trump is putting the jury, judge, and prosecutors on trial for Stone’s conviction.
All of this is aside from the fact that, thanks to Mitch McConnell, Trump has appointed 192 federal judges. That includes 51 appeals court judges and 137 district court judges, in addition to two Supreme Court justices that put conservatives in the driver’s seat of national policy for untold years to come. What Trump is doing now isn’t destroying the judicial system, because that work is pretty much done. He’s now rubbing out faith in the judicial system.
That’s why it’s unlikely that Stone will get an immediate pardon. As long as Stone can cool his heels at home, Trump and company will use his case for those two all-important purposes: destroying the republic and fundraising. That’s why members of Trump’s campaign team have already set up a fund supposedly dedicated to paying for Stone’s appeal and are running ads to reach out to Trump supporters in Stone’s name. Stone will probably get his pardon … when Trump has milked his crimes for maximum damage. In the meantime, Trump will tell outright lies about Judge Jackson, such as the claim that she put Paul Manafort in solitary confinement. She didn’t.
But the level of assault that Trump and Barr are staging on the remainder of the judicial system at this point demonstrates vividly that this is an endgame for democracy. Republicans didn’t do anything about Trump’s extorting a U.S. ally to cheat in the 2020 election. They’re not doing anything now about his abusing a judge, intimidating a juror, and tilting the scale of justice to favor his friends. They’re not going to do anything.
Except, perhaps, think about how nice elections will be when only Trump-approved candidates are allowed on the ballot.