As the DOJ's Russia probe ramped up in 2018, Trump's authoritarian impulses reached alarming new levels — and the GOP was there to help every step of the way.
Trump has been at war with our democratic institutions since the day he took office. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has borne the brunt of many of his most vicious attacks, in large part because the department is in charge of overseeing the Russia probe that he so desperately wants to end.
As the investigation picked up steam in 2018, Trump's assault on the rule of law reached alarming new levels, imperiling the independence of the DOJ and eroding the very principles upon which our democracy rests.
Of course, Trump didn't do this alone — he had plenty of help from his Republican allies, who were more than happy to assist him as he tore at the fabric of one of our most critical democratic institutions.
With 2018 coming to an end, here's a look back at 13 of the most egregious ways Trump and his GOP accomplices weaponized the DOJ for political purposes.
1. When Trump ordered the White House counsel to intervene and stop Sessions' recusal
In the first week of 2018, it was revealed that Trump had ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to stop then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
McGahn carried out Trump's orders and attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince Sessions not to recuse himself from the probe. When McGahn's efforts failed, Trump was so furious that he "erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him," according to the New York Times, which first reported on the incident.
Sessions' recusal from the probe resulted in the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now leading the Russia investigation. Trump had reportedly expected Sessions to "safeguard him" — raising the question of what he felt he needed to be protected from. After all, if Trump's claims of no wrongdoing are true, then why would he need Sessions to protect him?
Trump's attempt to stop Sessions from recusing himself is one of several previously unreported incidents that special counsel Mueller is looking at as he investigates whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.
2. When the DOJ was used to investigate Trump's pet conspiracy theory
At the behest of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ announced in September that it would use taxpayer dollars to investigate Trump's disproven conspiracy theory alleging that conservatives are being censored by social media companies.
Trump adopted this conspiracy from the rantings of his supporter, ally, and favorite conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, along with other unreliable sources in the conservative media. Among other things, Trump has claimed Twitter is "shadowbanning" individuals on the right. They aren't. He also alleged that Google is skewing its results to hurt Trump. They aren't either.
At the time of the announcement, Trump had been raging against Sessions, so the move was seen by many as a way for Sessions to use the DOJ to get back in the good graces of Trump.
3. When Trump demanded that the DOJ investigate the Obama administration
In May, coinciding with the anniversary of the appointment of special counsel Mueller, Trump launched a new attack against the Russia investigation, ordering the DOJ to investigate the Obama administration based on a disproven conspiracy theory alleging that Obama-era officials had spied on the Trump campaign.
"I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!" Trump wrote in a Twitter rant.
Trump's chilling demand came after he threatened several weeks earlier to use "the powers of the presidency" to "get involved" with the DOJ's investigations — a clear abuse of power that eroded the boundary between the White House and the supposedly independent DOJ.
4. When Trump forced the DOJ to show the evidence they have against him
Also in May, Trump ordered officials from the White House to set up a meeting with the DOJ, the FBI, and top intelligence officials to review highly classified information gathered as part of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference and coordination with the Trump campaign.
Trump is among those being investigated, as are many of his campaign aides and advisers. Clearly, forcing the DOJ to show its hand during an ongoing investigation is a wholly inappropriate abuse of power. However, those who would hold Trump accountable — namely, the GOP-led Congress — haven't shown any interest in doing so.
Trump's demand that the DOJ show classified intelligence to White House officials came as part of his deranged order to investigate the conspiracy theory he called "Spygate." This was used as a pretense to allow the White House to have access to the very evidence that might be used against him or others on his team.
5. When Trump and his GOP allies tried to convene a classified briefing for Republicans only
In May, Trump allies Trey Gowdy and Devin Nunes were scheduled to attend a classified briefing with DOJ officials that was described as "unprecedented" due to the explicitly partisan nature of the meeting. When the briefing was first arranged at the request of the White House, only Republicans were invited to attend, a move that broke with established precedent and prompted outcry from both sides of the aisle.
The partisan nature of the briefing was even more glaring given that Republicans claimed they needed to see classified intelligence from the Russia probe to carry out their oversight duty, despite failing to provide oversight for the entirety of Trump's presidency. In reality, Trump's GOP allies were demanding to see the sensitive documents to gather information that they could use to help Trump muddy the waters, cast doubt on the Russia probe, and build momentum for his "Spygate" conspiracy theory.
The attempt to hold a Republican-only briefing ultimately failed due to widespread outcry, but the incident demonstrated just how far Trump's accomplices were willing to go in their efforts to provide cover for him.
6. When Trump's personal lawyer got caught attending a classified DOJ briefing
When the DOJ held its classified briefing to present evidence from the Russia investigation to lawmakers in May, Trump's personal lawyer Emmet Flood — who is representing Trump in the Russia probe — was caught on camera in the hallway leaving the meeting alongside Trump's congressional allies Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy, and Paul Ryan, as well as chief of staff John Kelly.
No one could explain why Trump's personal lawyer was in attendance at a briefing where the DOJ showed lawmakers evidence from the Russia investigation, including evidence against Trump, nor could anyone explain why a White House official was at the briefing despite assurances earlier in the week that no one from the White House would be present.
As Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro said at the time, Trump used the classified briefing to "find out what goods the DOJ/Mueller have on him." In other words, Trump's lawyer got a backstage pass to a briefing in which the DOJ presented evidence it has collected on his client.
7. When Trump weaponized classified intelligence from the Russia investigation
In a move described as "stunning," "unprecedented," and "corrupt," the White House announced in September that Trump had ordered the declassification of highly sensitive materials from the Russia probe so they could be weaponized and used in the ongoing effort by Trump and his allies to undermine a national security investigation for political purposes.
The White House said in a statement that Trump had directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Department of Justice, and the FBI to release selective portions of the classified Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application that allowed the FBI to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. He also ordered "all FBI reports" prepared in connection with the FISA warrant application to be declassified and released.
In his order, Trump cherry-picked specific information to release while opting to keep much of it hidden — not out of concern for national security, but out of concern that releasing all of the information would prove that the FBI was, in fact, acting entirely appropriately when it sought a surveillance warrant on Page.
In other words, Trump used his power to demand that federal officials only release information that could be spun to prop up the false narrative he and his allies have been peddling for well over a year, while refusing to release any information that might reveal the truth.
8. When Trump threatened to weaponize more Russia documents to shield himself
In November, not long after Democrats won back the majority in the House of Representatives, Trump threatened to weaponize more sensitive Russia-related documents in an attempt to shield himself from the investigations that the new Democratic-led House committees have promised to launch.
Trump quite obviously fears what these investigations may uncover — so he responded by threatening to declassify sensitive intelligence and wield it as a weapon against the new Democratic majority in a last-ditch effort to protect himself.
In case there were any doubts about his motivation, Trump admitted that he is waiting to declassify certain documents related to the Russia investigation so he can use them as leverage against Democrats at a time of his choosing.
"It's much more powerful if I do it then, because if we had done it already, it would already be yesterday's news," Trump said, referring to applications for surveillance warrants and other sensitive documents related to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. "I'm a counter-puncher and I will hit them so hard they'd never been hit like that."
His threat to put national security at risk to protect himself came just weeks after he pledged to take a "warlike posture" if Democrats tried to carry out their constitutional oversight duty by investigating him or his administration.
9. When Trump ousted Sessions and appointed a loyalist as acting attorney general
Also in November, just days after Democrats scored sweeping victories in the House of Representatives and local elections across the country, Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appointed loyalist Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general.
Typically, the deputy attorney general would fill that position — but Trump bypassed Rod Rosenstein and tapped Whitaker for the spot instead. In doing so, Trump installed someone to lead the Russia investigation who had already made it clear that he is hostile to the Russia investigation.
Among other things, Whitaker has said he believes Mueller crossed a red line when he started looking at Trump's financial history and business dealings. He has also advocated for defunding the probe or placing severe limits on Mueller's authority to stop him from conducting a thorough investigation.
Naturally, these comments made Whitaker a perfect candidate in Trump's eyes. Unfortunately for Trump, ousting his attorney general and putting a loyalist in his place to undermine the Russia probe may have actually strengthened the obstruction case against him.
10. When a GOP senator said Trump 'has the right' to threaten DOJ officials
In April, Trump apologist Orrin Hatch actually said that Trump "has the right" to threaten and intimidate DOJ officials who are investigating him.
Hatch's comments came in response to a reporter's questions about why Republicans were refusing to pass legislation to protect special counsel Mueller's job. Asked if he supports such legislation, Hatch said he didn't think it was necessary. The reporter followed up by asking if Hatch thought it was "appropriate for the president to threaten or intimidate officials… at the Department of Justice?"
"I think he has the right to if he wants to," Hatch replied.
The notion that Trump has the right to threaten officials who are investigating him would be absurd under any circumstances, but is even more outlandish given that Trump has shown he is willing to act on those threats in an effort to obstruct the Russia investigation. Among other things, he has committed multiple firings, and has even tried to fire Mueller on at least two separate occasions, all to protect himself.
Republicans like Hatch are supposed to be a check on Trump's power, but instead they have consistently enabled his many abuses of power.
11. When Trump ordered the FBI to reveal the identity of a confidential informant
In May, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress issued a reckless demand for the FBI to expose the identity of a confidential informant who reportedly aided the FBI as it began its Russia investigation and continued to assist investigators after the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller in May 2017.
Trump and his allies apparently believed that outing the source could help them in their quest to undermine the Russia probe and ultimately lay the groundwork for firing special counsel Mueller. But senior intelligence officials, including Trump's own handpicked FBI director, warned that exposing the identity of a confidential informant would not only imperil that person and the people around them, but also the American public.
The move was so dangerous that the FBI was forced to take the extraordinary step of putting in place emergency security measures to protect the safety of the informant and their associates in case their identity became known. But to Trump, the safety of FBI sources and the American public take a backseat to his own need for protection — from the rule of law.
12. When Trump tried to get the DOJ to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey
In November, a bombshell report came out describing how Trump had tried to get the DOJ to prosecute two of his rivals, Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
Trump reportedly told White House counsel Don McGahn earlier in the year that he wanted to order the DOJ to pursue charges against both Comey and Clinton. It's not clear what he wanted to prosecute them for, but McGahn and other White House lawyers were so alarmed that they wrote a memo outlining Trump’s authorities as president and warning him that such a move could lead to impeachment.
Upon hearing news of Trump's attempt to weaponize the DOJ against his political enemies, Nixon-era White House counsel John Dean warned, "This is what an autocrat does."
13. When Trump tried to force the DOJ to investigate editorials he doesn't like
In September, just after an official from the Trump administration published an anonymous editorial in The New York Times accusing Trump of acting "in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic," Trump responded by trying to force the DOJ to open up an investigation to determine the identity of the anonymous author.
Trump said The New York Times' decision to publish the op-ed from a supposed senior White House official was "virtually, you know, you could call it treason." He added that he was looking at taking legal action and said he wanted then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the identity of the person "because I really believe it is national security."
Trump's ridiculous plot to get the DOJ to investigate editorials he doesn't like came after press secretary Sarah Sanders' call for Trump supporters to dial up the Times and demand "to know who this gutless loser is" failed to yield any results.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.