Politicization under Trump

  • A government official politicizes a department or agency if they use it for political purposes.
  • For example:
    • Using the IRS to conduct in-depth audits of political rivals.
    • Using the FBI to investigate political rivals.
    • Using the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) to make projections favorable to tax legislation your party seeks to enact.

Trump and his political appointees have politicized departments and agencies of the federal government

  • How the Census Bureau Stood Up to Donald Trump’s Meddling NYT
Department of Justice
Barr’s Summary of Mueller Report, March 2019
  • The Mueller Report concluded that “substantial evidence” exists that Trump obstructed justice.  
  • The Attorney General asserted the evidence did not “establish” obstruction of justice, providing no argument.
  • View Mueller Report
Barr’s appointing John Durham to investigate origins of the FBI investigation into Russian interference, May 2019
  • Wikipedia
    • Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to oversee a DOJ probe into the origins of the FBI investigation into Russian interference.
    • The origins of the probe were already being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general and by U.S. attorney John Huber, who was appointed in 2018 by Jeff Sessions.
OLC’s handling of Whistle Blower Complaint, Aug 2019
  • The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who was required by statute to send the Whistle Blower Complaint to Congress within 7 days, refused to do so on the grounds that:
    • The Office of Legal Counsel at the DOJ found that the complaint did not meet the statutory definition of an “urgent concern” under the whistleblower law, which eliminated the requirement that it be shared with Congress. 
  • View Timeline of Notifying Congress of Whistleblower Complaint
Barr meeting with officials in Australia, Italy, and U.K to review the US counterintelligence investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign, Oct. 6, 2019 WSJ
  • Barr is sparking discord in several foreign capitals, seeking help from allies in reviewing the origins of a U.S. counterintelligence investigation, by meeting directly with foreign leaders rather than relying on investigator-to-investigator channels.
DOJ’s opening a criminal inquiry into its own Russia investigation, October 2019 NYT
  • Justice Department officials have shifted an administrative review of the Russia investigation closely overseen by Attorney General William P. Barr to a criminal inquiry, according to two people familiar with the matter. The move gives the prosecutor running it, John H. Durham, the power to subpoena for witness testimony and documents, to convene a grand jury and to file criminal charges.
  • Ex-F.B.I. Lawyer Expected to Plead Guilty in Review of Russia Inquiry (NYT August 14, 2020)
    • Kevin Clinesmith, who was assigned to the Russia investigation, plans to admit that he altered an email from the C.I.A. that investigators relied on to seek renewed court permission in 2017 for a secret wiretap on the former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
    • Prosecutors did not reveal any evidence in charging documents that show Mr. Clinesmith’s actions were part of any broader conspiracy to undermine Mr. Trump. And the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, has found that law enforcement officials had sufficient reason to open the Russia investigation, known inside the F.B.I. as Crossfire Hurricane, and found no evidence that they acted with political bias.
DOJ’s recommending an unspecified prison term for Roger Stone, overriding the prosecutors’ request of seven to nine years, February 2020
  • Prosecutors Quit Roger Stone Case After Justice Dept. Intervenes on Sentencing (NYT, February 11, 2020)
    • In an extraordinary decision overruling career lawyers, the Justice Department recommended an unspecified term of incarceration for Mr. Stone instead of the prosecutors’ request of a punishment of seven to nine years. The move coincided with Mr. Trump’s declaration on Twitter early Tuesday that the government was treating Mr. Stone too harshly.
  • Justice Dept. watchdog to review handling of Roger Stone sentencing recommendation (WaPo, September 14, 2020)
    • The Justice Department’s internal watchdog has begun reviewing the controversial handling of the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime friend of President Trump who was convicted of lying to the House Intelligence Committee during its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, a Justice Department spokeswoman said Monday.
  • William Barr Moves to Take the Reins of Politically Charged Cases (NYT, February 14, 2020)
Barr’s opening a channel for information from Giuliani, February 2020
  • Barr’s internal reviews and re-investigations feed resentment, suspicion inside Justice Dept. (WaPo, February 15, 2020)
    • Barr assigned Scott W. Brady, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, to take information from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who wants to provide the Justice Department with material alleging wrongdoing related to former vice president Joe Biden and his family.
Move to drop the case against Michael Flynn, May 2020
  • Justice Dept. moves to drop case against Michael Flynn (WaPo, May 2020)
    • In court documents filed Thursday, the Justice Department said “after a considered review of all the facts and circumstances of this case, including newly discovered and disclosed information … the government has concluded that [Flynn’s interview by the FBI in January 2017] was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn,” and that it was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”
    • Thursday’s filings suggest a handful of former senior FBI officials are to blame for a meritless pursuit of Flynn. The filing mentions internal communications between former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, former case agent Peter Strzok, and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page — all of whom have faced criticism for other conduct — and argues that those conversations show the FBI investigation of Flynn, dubbed Operation Razor, should not have existed at all.
  • 2,000 former DOJ, FBI officials call on Barr to resign over Michael Flynn case (NBC, May 11, 2020)
  • Court-appointed adviser in Michael Flynn case says Justice Dept. yielded to corrupt ‘pressure campaign’ led by Trump (WaPo September 11, 2020)
    • In a 30-page court filing in Washington, former New York federal judge John Gleeson called Attorney General William P. Barr’s request to drop Flynn’s case a “corrupt and politically motivated favor unworthy of our justice system.”
Trump’s firing US attorney Geoffrey Berman after Barr tried unsuccessfully to get Berman to resign, June 2020
  • Trump fired Geoffrey S. Berman, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office has been at the forefront of corruption inquiries into Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The office successfully prosecuted the president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who went to prison, and has been investigating Mr. Trump’s current personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. (NYT)
  • From Berman’s testimony before the House:
    • “The Attorney General said that if I did not resign from my position I would be fired. He added that getting fired from my job would not be good for my resume or future job prospects. I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign.” (WaPo)
  • The plot thickens on Attorney General William Barr’s removal of a prosecutor who probed Trump, Aaron Blake (WaPo)
  • “Bill Barr undermined the rule of law by forcing out Geoffrey Berman,” Preet Bharara (NYT)
Trump’s commuting Roger’s Stone’s 40-month prison sentence for lying to Congress, obstructing its investigation, and witness tampering., July 10, 2020
  • “The president’s decision on Friday to commute Mr. Stone’s prison sentence for impeding a congressional inquiry and other crimes was extraordinary because federal prosecutors had suspected that Mr. Stone could shed light on whether Mr. Trump had lied to them under oath or illegally obstructed justice.” (NYT)
  • “One of our cases involved Stone, an official on the campaign until mid-2015 and a supporter of the campaign throughout 2016. Stone became a central figure in our investigation for two key reasons: He communicated in 2016 with individuals known to us to be Russian intelligence officers, and he claimed advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of emails stolen by those Russian intelligence officers.” (Robert Mueller)
  • “An American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” Mitt Romney. (NPR)
Barr’s repeating false claims, made by Trump, in testimony before the House, July 28, 2020
  • Barr “The problem with the testing system was a function of President Obama’s mishandling of the C.D.C. and his efforts to centralize everything in the C.D.C.”
    • Rated false by NYT Fact Checker
      • False. Mr. Barr, like Mr. Trump, was likely referring to a “draft guidance” issued in 2014 by the Obama administration to regulate laboratory-developed tests necessary to track a pandemic. But the policy was never finalized or enforced, undermining the argument that it was to blame for the scattered and insufficient delivery of coronavirus tests this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention botched the development of its own tests, leaving the United States initially blind to the virus’s spread and behind other nations. (The Justice Department plays no role in procuring or distributing coronavirus tests.)
  • Barr said he had “no reason to think” that the upcoming election will be “rigged,” but added “if you have wholesale mail-in voting, it substantially increases the risk of fraud.”
DOJ intervening in defamation suit against Trump, September 9, 2020
  • Justice Dept. intervenes on behalf of Trump in defamation case brought by woman who accused him of rape (WaPo)
    • The Justice Department on Tuesday intervened in the defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who says President Trump raped her years ago, moving the matter to federal court and signaling it wants to make the U.S. government — rather than Trump himself — the defendant in the case.
    • In filings in federal court in Manhattan, the Justice Department asserted that Trump was “acting within the scope of his office as President of the United States” when he denied during interviews in 2019 that he had raped journalist E. Jean Carroll more than two decades ago in a New York City department store. Carroll sued Trump over that denial in November.
    • The Justice Department on Tuesday intervened in the defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who says President Trump raped her years ago, moving the matter to federal court and signaling it wants to make the U.S. government — rather than Trump himself — the defendant in the case.
    • In filings in federal court in Manhattan, the Justice Department asserted that Trump was “acting within the scope of his office as President of the United States” when he denied during interviews in 2019 that he had raped journalist E. Jean Carroll more than two decades ago in a New York City department store. Carroll sued Trump over that denial in November.
DOJ opening a criminal inquiry into John Bolton’s book, September 15, 2020
  • Justice Dept. Opens Criminal Inquiry Into John Bolton’s Book (WaPo, September 15, 2020)
    • The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into whether President Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton unlawfully disclosed classified information in a memoir this summer, a case that the department opened after it failed to stop the book’s publication, according to three people familiar with the matter.
    • The department has convened a grand jury, which issued a subpoena for communications records from Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Mr. Bolton’s memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.” 
Healthcare Agencies

View Politicizing the FDA and CDC

Inspectors General
  • “The stated purpose of the IG Act is to create independent and objective units within each agency whose duty it is to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in the programs and operations of that agency.”
  • wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_dismissal_of_inspectors_general
    • In April and May 2020, Trump dismissed the inspectors general of five cabinet departments.
      • Michael K. Atkinson, Intelligence Community
      • Glenn Fine (acting), Defense Department
      • Christi Grimm (acting), Health and Human Services
      • Mitch Behm (acting), Transportation
      • Steve Linick, State Department
Intelligence Community
  • Whistle-Blower Says D.H.S. Downplayed Threats From Russia and White Supremacists (NYT, Sept. 9, 2020)
    • Top officials with the Department of Homeland Security directed agency analysts to downplay the threat of violent white supremacy and of Russian election interference, according to a whistle-blower complaint filed by a top intelligence official with the department.
    • Brian Murphy, the former head of the intelligence branch of the Homeland Security Department, said in a whistle-blower complaint filed on Tuesday that he was directed by Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the department, to stop producing assessments on Russian interference. The department’s second highest ranked official, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, also ordered him to modify intelligence assessments to make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe” and include information on violent “left-wing” groups, according to the complaint, which was released Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee.
  • Senior DHS official alleges in whistleblower complaint that he was told to stop providing intelligence analysis on threat of Russian interference (WaPo, September 9, 2020)
  • Senior intelligence officials will no longer brief Congress in person on foreign threats to the 2020 election(WaPo, August 29, 2020 )
    • Senior intelligence officials will no longer brief Congress in person on foreign interference in the 2020 election. Instead, they will inform lawmakers of threats in writing, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Saturday.
    • The decision arose out of concerns that briefings to lawmakers have resulted in leaks of classified information, an ODNI official said.
    • But the change threatens to undermine the community’s pledge to be transparent with Congress and the public at a time when three foreign adversaries, including Russia, are seeking to influence the American political process.
  • Homeland Security Blocked Warnings of Russian Campaign Against Biden (NYT, Sept. 9, 2020)
    • DHS has declined to publish the July 9 intelligence document “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of U.S. Candidates to Influence 2020 Election,” drafted to inform state and local law enforcement officials that Russian state media agencies were posting “allegations about the poor mental health of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden,”
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • NOAA taps David Legates, professor who questions the seriousness and severity of global warming, for top role (WaPo, September 14, 2020)
    • The Trump administration has tapped David Legates, an academic who has long questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is causing global warming, to help run the agency that produces much of the climate research funded by the U.S. government.
    • Legates, a University of Delaware professor who was forced out of his role as that state’s climatologist because of his controversial views, has taken a senior leadership role at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Office of Management and Budget
  • White House orders review aimed at blocking federal funding from places administration labels ‘anarchist jurisdictions’ (WaPo, September 2, 2020)
    • In a five-page memo, the president directs the White House Office of Management and Budget to give guidance to federal agencies on restricting funding to cities that “defund” their police departments. The memo also directs the Justice Department within 14 days to come up with a list of localities that qualify as “anarchist jurisdictions” and post that list publicly. Trump has said there is a wide-ranging Democratic plot to defund police departments, although most prominent Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, have adamantly rejected this approach.
Post Office
  • Federal judge issues temporary injunction against USPS operational changes amid concerns about mail slowdowns, (WaPo, September 17, 2020)
    • A federal judge in Washington state on Thursday granted a request from 14 states to temporarily block operational changes within the U.S. Postal Service that have been blamed for a slowdown in mail delivery, saying that President Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy are “involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” that could disrupt the 2020 election.
    • Stanley A. Bastian, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, said that harm to the public “has already taken place” by changes put in place under DeJoy. Bastian ruled from the bench Thursday afternoon after a two-and-a-half hour hearing.
  • Postal Service memos detail ‘difficult’ changes, including slower mail delivery (WaPo. July 14, 2020)
    • Postmaster General Louis DeJoy established major operational changes that could slow down mail delivery, warning employees the agency would not survive unless it made “difficult” changes to cut costs. 
  • View Post Office Memo
Pre-publication Review
  • White House intervened to halt release of Bolton book with flawed classification review, federal official says (WaPo, September 23, 2020)
Voice of America
  • How a Trump appointee tried to destroy Voice of America (WaPo Editorial, June 8, 2023)
    •  A 145-page report, written by three outside experts who were endorsed by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, concludes that Mr. Pack repeatedly “abused his authority” and “engaged in gross mismanagement and gross waste.”
  • Voice Of America CEO In The Hot Seat: Democratic Lawmakers Bear Down On Pack (NPR, September 21, 2020)
  • At Voice of America, Trump Appointee Sought Political Influence Over Coverage (NPR, September 2, 2020)
  • New Voice of America overseer called foreign journalists a security risk. Now the staff is revolting. (WaPo, September 2, 2020)
Violating the Hatch Act
  • DeVos to Be Investigated for Potential Violation of Ethics Law (NYT)
    • The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which has jurisdiction to investigate violations of the Hatch Act, will investigate whether Education Secretary Betsy DeVos breached a law forbidding federal employees from engaging in political activities on the job after her department distributed a clip of Ms. DeVos criticizing the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., through government channels.
    • The Office of Special Counsel recommended in 2019 that Mr. Trump fire Kellyanne Conway, his White House counselor at the time, over repeated violations of the Hatch Act.
    • More recently, the administration brushed aside claims that Republican National Convention programming filmed at the White House violated the ethics law. Mr. Trump accepted his party’s nomination last month from the South Lawn of the White House.
    • The power to levy penalties on violators of the Hatch Act falls to President Trump, and he has shown little inclination to mete out punishment or follow the office’s recommendations.
Barr’s Pro-Trump Actions, Aaron Blake Washington Post, June 26 2020
  • He offered a misleading preview of the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on the Russia investigation, which Mueller himself raised concerns about in an extraordinary letter.
  • Barr intervened to get a lower sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump adviser Stone, which led to the withdrawal of all four prosecutors on the case. Two of them have spoken out publicly now, including Aaron Zelinsky, who testified under oath this week that he was told the decision was made because the acting U.S. attorney was “afraid of the president.” Zelinsky added that it was the only example of political meddling he had encountered in his entire prosecutorial career.
  • Barr’s Justice Department moved to drop its prosecution of Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, even though he pleaded guilty. The judge in the case, Emmet G. Sullivan, has cast the situation as “unprecedented.”
  • Barr and the U.S. attorney investigating the origins of the Russia investigation issued extraordinary statements disputing an inspector general’s finding that the investigation was properly predicated. It’s very rare for Justice Department officials to comment on ongoing probes, and the attorney, John Durham, in particular almost never comments publicly.
  • Barr has said the Obama administration spied on the Trump campaign — a loaded characterization that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has rejected.
  • This past weekend, he launched a botched effort to remove Berman. Berman eventually stepped aside after Trump was forced to fire him. But before that, Berman issued his own extraordinary statement disputing Barr’s claim that he had stepped down. Berman also conspicuously vowed to ensure that “important cases continue unimpeded” — which many read as a allusion to investigations involving Trump and his allies, possibly including Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Barr’s Pro-Trump Actions, Philip Bump Washington Post, September 9, 2020
  • The Justice Department stepped into the Carroll’s defamation suit against Trump, claiming that because Trump was president when he made the comments about Carroll, she should be suing the government, not Trump himself. 
  • In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week the attorney general went out of his way to bolster Trump’s arguments that mail-in voting poses a significant risk of widespread fraud, which it objectively doesn’t. 
  • Barr also defended a variety of other claims from the president, like Trump’s assertions
    • that gangs of ne’er-do-wells were traveling in dark-colored uniforms planning to wreak havoc.
    • that Chinese interference, not Russian, poses the most significant risk to the election.
    • that he didn’t accept the determination by a bipartisan Senate committee that Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort was working with an agent of the Russian government.
  • To Blitzer, Barr described the investigation into Russian interference as “Russiagate,” adopting the language of those who, like Trump, seek to undermine the probe.
  • Barr worked to defuse the risk posed by the Russia probe, most famously including his efforts to get ahead of the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, describing it as exonerating when it explicitly wasn’t.
  • Barr’s Justice Department has sought to weaken several indictments obtained by Mueller’s team, including by seeking to throw out charges targeting former national security adviser Michael Flynn — charges to which Flynn had previously pleaded guilty.
  • The Justice Department’s decision to scale back sentencing recommendations for Trump ally Roger Stone led a number of department lawyers working on the case to step down. 
  • Barr has repeatedly misrepresented his own actions and those of his department. The Times’s Charlie Savage documented a number of them last week:
    • untrue claims about the extent of a law enforcement operation endorsed by Trump;
    • misrepresenting the process by which a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine made its way to Congress;
    • and lying about the resignation of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. 
  • Barr has repeatedly echoed Trump’s claims that a loosely organized group called antifa poses a significant risk to public safety, despite limited evidence that antifa has engaged in widespread violence. When someone claiming loyalty to antifa allegedly shot and killed a man in Portland in late August before being killed by law enforcement, Barr released an unusual statement praising officials for stopping “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer.” He’s released no such statements following the arrest of alleged right-wing criminals.
  • It was probably Barr who in early June gave the order to U.S. Park Police to clear peaceful protesters near Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, allowing Trump to head to a nearby church to pose for photos with a Bible. The attorney general repeatedly denied the use of tear gas as the square was cleared, relying heavily on the fact that “tear gas” isn’t usually a gas. In the days that followed, Barr’s Justice Department shifted Bureau of Prisons personnel to the streets of D.C., officers who declined to identify themselves or the organization for which they were working.
  • Barr ordered an internal probe into the investigation’s origins, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Barr has taken an active role in Durham’s probe, even accompanying Durham as he investigates international leads. When a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general undermined the idea that the Russia probe had been prompted by political bias, Barr released an unusual statement reframing the report in terms favorable to Trump’s view of the Russia probe. Durham released a statement of his own, stating that “we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions.”
Barr’s Pro-Trump Actions, Jennifer Rubin Washington Post, August 6, 2020
  • Falsely representing the Mueller report
  • Intervening on behalf of Trump confidant Roger Stone and Flynn
  • Turning a blind eye toward Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine
  • Fanning flames of already debunked conspiracies (apparently willing to release a report from his hand-picked U.S. attorney John Durham shortly before the election)
  • Presiding over a series of embarrassing misrepresentations to the courts (e.g., on the 2020 Census, on DACA).
How Democracies Die (2018) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt Capturing the Referees
  • For would-be authoritarians judicial and law enforcement agencies pose both a challenge and an opportunity. If they remain independent, they might expose and punish government abuse.
  • But if these agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims, shielding the government from investigation and criminal prosecutions that could lead to its removal from power. The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured. With the courts packed and law enforcement authorities brought to heel, governments can act with impunity.
  • Capturing the referees also offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies. Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets. The police can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by pro-government thugs. Intelligence agencies can be used to spy on critics and dig up material for blackmail.
  • Most often, the capture of the referees is done by quietly firing civil servants and other nonpartisan officials and replacing them with loyalists.
  • Judges who cannot be bought off may be targeted for impeachment.