Jeff Sessions has ordered prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges against suspects in all cases’ Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
When the Trump White House abruptly purged the nearly 50 US attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama era, Democrats everywhere cried foul. Months later, the move still rankles: on Tuesday, a New York Times editorial lamented that Donald Trump has yet to replace a single one, criticizing the “law and order candidate” for allowing “such a leadership vacuum” at prosecutors’ offices around the US.
Noting that US attorneys are responsible for prosecuting terrorism offenses, financial fraud, public corruption, drug trafficking and all other federal crimes, the Times declares that, for now, “local offices are being run by acting United States attorneys, often career lawyers or deputies held over from the Obama administration. They’re able to manage day-to-day operations, but don’t have the authority to push forward major policy changes.”
This is a grave problem, the Times says. Even if his policy changes are “ill-advised”, Trump must fill these vacancies because a “serious president needs to have the people in place to implement the programs that supposedly matter to him”.
Never mind that Trump’s attorney general (for now, at least), Jeff Sessions, has ordered prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges against suspects in all cases, a direct rebuke of the Obama administration’s focus on reducing punishments for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
Never mind the retrograde, terrifying nature of a justice department under Trump’s thumb. The Times thinks what Americans really need are more political appointees, courtesy of Trump.
Through his own inaction or incompetence, Trump is inadvertently preserving the independence of federal prosecutors’ offices and removing a large degree of politics from the criminal justice system. He is doing good by doing nothing.
This state of affairs won’t last, assuming Trump eventually moves to appoint prosecutors amenable enough to his party line. That’s how it has always worked. Presidents appoint their own US attorneys. When the next president arrives, these attorneys are dumped and the new commander-in-chief replaces them with his people.
Somehow, in a system like this one, pundits and reporters and legal observers imagine that federal prosecutors are independent and apolitical, neutral actors merely serving at the pleasure of a sitting president. It’s a comfortable fiction most Americans like to indulge in.
What the Times demands is a return to the status quo because Trump must be a “serious” president. This word is a favorite of the punditocracy on both sides of the aisle, akin to the Washington handwringing over the “optics” of whatever is occurring at any given moment, substance be damned. It doesn’t look good that Trump has left these vacancies unfilled. It doesn’t follow precedent. It’s not very presidential.
Strip away the sanctimonious tradition, however, and what you see is what the Times describes: career prosecutors running the offices. These men and women are not appointees of the president. They are there because, in most cases, they are competent prosecutors who methodically climbed the ranks. They are the types of people who should be steering these offices anyway.
Preet Bharara, the US attorney from New York who wouldn’t resign when Trump told him to, became a liberal martyr when he was fired. Known for his high-profile public corruption cases, Bharara, an Obama appointee, was the ultimate publicity hound, mixing a thirst for media coverage with an aggressive pursuit of suspects. He relished leaking details of his investigations to the press. He enjoyed life in the public eye.
Despite the Democratic wailing, Bharara’s office in the southern district of New York did not collapse in his absence. Investigations continue. In Bharara’s place is his deputy, Joon Kim, who appears no worse at the job because he’s been in the office for a sizable amount of his professional life. He doesn’t seize headlines. He doesn’t need to.
For anyone on the left, begging for Trump to fill these vacancies doesn’t make sense. If you believe his tough-on-crime approach is heinous, pleading for 46 mini-Sessions to fan out across America is foolhardy. Hope career lawyers keeping doing the work instead. For the sake of the criminal justice system, less from Trump is always better.