Bonfire of the Prosecutors
Partisan animosities are pushing the U.S. toward a significant political crisis.
By Daniel Henninger
American politics has become an endless fox hunt. The hounds’ heads jerked up recently on news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, responding to a request from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, had asked the Justice Department’s career lawyers to look into the possibility of appointing a second special prosecutor, to investigate Hillary Clinton.
Set aside for a moment what the precise meaning of “investigate” might be. The day doesn’t pass anymore without a demand, from the Oval Office or the ozone, that someone should “look into” some political malefaction. Theoretically, we could have public officials being led to the executioner’s block weekly in Washington.
Indeed, the movement to name a second special prosecutor flows from the fact that the Washington press corps in January decided en masse to “look into” the notion that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia to defeat Mrs. Clinton, a thought dropped into the water by the departing Obama administration.
What followed was a river of stories purporting Trump-Russian collusion. Months later, it remains true that the federal code recognizes no crime called “collusion.” Eventually the river of collusion stories joined with Oval Office mania over them to produce special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
A fiction exists that Mr. Mueller represents the “rule of law.” In truth, Mr. Mueller looks about as relevant as a lawyer wandering around the smoking battlefield at Gettysburg. We are in the midst of a multifront political war—between Republicans and Democrats, and President Trump and the Beltway media.
The central, contested issue in this war is the acceptability of Mr. Trump’s presidency. The Trump opposition believes that a Trump presidency remains unthinkable and abhorrent, so opposing it is a moral imperative. But however intense the imperative, it’s nothing more than that, because the formal politics are moot. Mr. Trump received more Electoral College votes than Mrs. Clinton.
But so deep is the antipathy to the existence of a Trump presidency—forget that someone has to deal with North Korea’s nuclear-armed missiles, the Middle East or the U.S. economy—that the opposition has spent nearly a year hoping just one more Russian collusion story would . . . do what? Make Mr. Trump evaporate?
So there is a kind of delicious temptation to embrace the idea of a second special prosecutor to “investigate” the Clintons. Why not? A lot of people on the right and left have been spoiling for a street fight over the 2016 election, so let’s have it out. Light the torch and set off a bonfire of special prosecutors.
The people who brought us the Trump-Russia collusion narrative are now weeping crocodile tears that the appointment of a second prosecutor would mean that President Trump is politicizing and weaponizing the Justice Department. Oh my. They should have thought of that before they approved how the nation’s security agencies weaponized the press last January.
Time to sober up. A self-indulgent American political class, reveling in perpetual tumult, is pushing the U.S. toward a significant crisis. The appointment of a second special prosecutor would bring that crisis closer.
Primary U.S. institutions are already on thin ice with the American people. Start with the malperformance of institutions once thought trustworthy, whether the unprecedented collusion leaks from the intelligence agencies or James Comey’s ham-handed and too-public tenure at the FBI.
Mr. Mueller’s team of prosecutors represents a rebuke of the Justice Department’s credibility and standing. His first act, the Paul Manafort indictment, was a pre-existing case that Justice offloaded to Mr. Mueller. If Mike Flynn or anyone else has violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Justice should prosecute, not the deus ex machina of a special prosecutor.
Political accountability remains crucial in a system as open as ours, and historically the press has provided much of that oversight. That’s changed. The media’s referee role has morphed into relentless political tendentiousness.
The media dresses up its collusion stories with insinuations that something illegal has occurred. In fact, the criminal law’s traditionally high bar of proof is being replaced by a weaker, more volatile standard from prehistory. In short, where’s there’s smoke, there must be guilt, so erect a special prosecutor to concoct indictments. This is a formula for creating unappeasable political resentments. Pressure builds; the system blows.
If you want to hate Donald Trump, feel free. But a sane world would have dropped the Russia stuff months ago, just as a sane world would get over Hillary’s crimes so that what’s left of the country’s institutions could get back to normal governing.
It won’t happen. Politics as a permanent bonfire has become both a thrill ride and a business model. But let me wonder who benefits from this scenario:
The day that the Trump Justice Department names a Clinton special prosecutor will be the day Mr. Trump’s impeachment is guaranteed, if the Democrats take the House in 2018. After that, let ’er rip.