WASHINGTON (AP) – In the week since his acquittal on impeachment charges, a fully emboldened United States (US) President Donald Trump is demonstrating his determination to assert an iron grip on government, pushing his Justice Department to ease up on a longtime friend while using the levers of presidential powers to exact payback on real and perceived foes.
Trump has told confidants in recent days that he felt both vindicated and strengthened by his acquittal in the Senate, believing Republicans have rallied around him in unprecedented fashion while voters were turned off by the political process, according to four White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about private conversations.
Since then, Trump and his aides have moved with haste to clear his administration of those he sees as insufficiently loyal, reaching all the way back to the time of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Democrats and outside analysts are raising red flags that Trump is exhibiting a post-impeachment thirst for vengeance that’s gone beyond bending norms and could potentially cause lasting damage to the institutions.
Some Republican senators, including Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, said they found Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inappropriate. But they also expressed hope following his acquittal that Trump had learnt a lesson from the episode.
Murkowski acknowledged on Wednesday that “there haven’t been very strong indicators this week that he has.”
After Trump vented on Twitter this week about federal prosecutors recommending up to nine years in federal prison for his confidant Roger Stone, the Justice Department abruptly announced that it would reevaluate the recommended sentence. Justice officials insisted the timing was coincidental; they’d already been planning to pull the recommendation.
Stone was convicted in November 2019 of tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. The Justice Department move to back away from the sentencing recommendation prompted the four attorneys who prosecuted Stone to quit the case. One left the Justice Department altogether.
In recent days, the White House has yanked a senior Treasury Department nomination away from a former Justice Department official who supervised the prosecutions of several of Trump advisers. The administration also fired an EPA official who claims he was ousted because he was deemed too friendly with Democrats.
Trump even suggested this week that the Pentagon investigate and potentially discipline former White House aide Lt Col Alexander Vindman, who provided damaging testimony about the President in the impeachment inquiry.
That came after White House officials last week told Vindman and his twin brother, also an Army officer who had been detailed to the White House National Security Council, that their services were no longer needed and that they would be reassigned to new duties by the Pentagon. Security then escorted the brothers off White House grounds.
“We are witnessing a crisis in the rule of law in America – unlike one we have ever seen before,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Schumer called for the Justice Department’s independent inspector general to probe the department’s action in the Stone case. Later, House lawmakers announced Attorney General William Barr would come before them next month to answer questions.