Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Time is now for Congress to act on president’s assault on rule of law

With his recent tweet criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for prosecuting Republican Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter, Donald Trump has stepped down a path that could literally lead to the end of America’s democracy unless somebody stops him.

Here’s the tweet, which Trump posted Monday: “Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......”

This is deeply disturbing. Trump has long been critical of the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — repeatedly denying any wrongdoing on his part and saying that special counsel Robert Mueller has gone too far afield — but this is the first time he has said prosecutors should consider politics over justice in their investigations.

His statement is nothing less than a call to eliminate the rule of law by making Republican lawmakers a protected political class.

In investigations like those involving Collins and Hunter, it should be of no consequence to prosecutors whether lawmakers will soon be up for re-election, whether their seats are considered safe or how it might affect the balance of power if charges are filed.

Prosecutors’ sole focus should be on whether there’s evidence that crimes were committed. If so, charges must be filed and the judicial process should play out, with the accused being considered innocent until proven guilty.

If there’s inadequate evidence, then and only then should investigations end without prosecution.

That certainly does not seem to be the case with Collins and Hunter.

Collins is accused of insider trading by tipping his son about a failed drug trial that caused an Australian biotech company’s stock to crash. Prosecutors claim that the info, which Collins had received in a highly confidential email, allowed Collins’ son and six other investors to avoid a combined $768,000 in losses by selling shares of stocks in the company.

As for Duncan, prosecutors allege in a 48-page indictment that he and his wife spent $250,000 worth of campaign funds on family vacations to Italy and Hawaii, school tuition, theater tickets and other luxuries.

In neither case is this a witch hunt, to use one of Trump’s favorite terms. And in Collins’ case, the president is dead wrong in saying the charges resulted from an “Obama era” investigation, given that the allegations stemmed from an incident in June 2017.

Keep in mind, too, that the Justice Department has done nothing out of the ordinary in prosecuting lawmakers from a president’s party. It’s happened several times in previous administrations. The department also abided by its informal rule to avoid indictments within 60 days of an election, meaning Collins and Duncan weren’t singled out.

That being the case, Trump has wiped his feet on the rule of law in suggesting protection for Collins and Duncan, who are among his most strident supporters.

We’d urge all Americans, including those in Trump’s base, to consider the potential ramifications of this. A Justice Department that would be expected to protect a president’s friends could conversely be compelled to punish his or her enemies and work to permanently keep one party in power.

As Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska pointed out in a statement opposing Trump’s tweet, “The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice — one for the majority party and one for the minority party.”

This is not a partisan issue. What applies to Trump should also apply to any Democratic Party candidate elected president.

“If Trump wants to have any hope of completing his term, much less getting re-elected, he must be quickly and sharply educated,” wrote Chris Truax, a member of the legal advisory board of Republicans for the Rule of Law, in a commentary for USA Today. “If he is not, he will eventually act on what to him seems a perfectly natural and logical idea: that the Justice Department exists to do his personal bidding. Should that happen, it would be a disaster, both for America’s political system and Trump’s presidency. He needs to be forced back from the brink, before it is too late.”

Truax is correct.

Congress needs to act, and fast, to keep Trump’s assault on the rule of law from growing beyond his tweet. At the very least, the situation calls for a joint resolution committing to a full and aggressive defense of the political independence of America’s justice system.