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Trump's White House lawyers are trying to stop a last-minute impeachment repeat

Firing FBI Director Christopher Wray would be one more example of how Trump tramples democratic norms, even on his way out the door.
Image: Donald Trump, Christopher Wray
President Donald Trump with FBI Director Christopher Wray at the FBI academy graduation ceremony in Quantico, Va., on Dec. 15, 2017.Evan Vucci / AP file

The White House counsel's office has evidently cautioned President Donald Trump against firing FBI Director Christopher Wray. The lawyers told Trump that canning Wray could make it seem like Trump required officials to pass a loyalty test, according to NBC News sources. It's not surprising that the president's lawyers appear concerned. Trump continues to commit the misdeeds for which he was impeached.

It’s not surprising that the president’s lawyers appear concerned. Trump continues to commit the misdeeds for which he was impeached.

Trump was impeached for abusing the powers and privileges of his office for his personal self-enrichment and for subverting national interests in favor of his own personal interests. Specifically, Trump implied that he might withhold American aid to Ukraine — a vulnerable ally — if Ukraine didn't open an investigation into the son of Trump's political rival, Joe Biden. Such an investigation would, of course, potentially benefit his own re-election and harm the election prospects of his political opponent. Testimony established that Trump's implied threat was understood by both U.S. and Ukrainian officials. Testimony at the impeachment hearing establishedthat Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy understood that if he didn't open the investigation Trump wanted, his country risked losing its American aid.

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And Zelenskiy was right to be concerned. Those who fail to do Trump's bidding often incur his wrath. To take one recent example, Trump demanded that the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, and its secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, invalidate Georgia's presidential election results. Kemp and Raffensperger refused. Trump then attacked both so viciously that election officials in Georgia found themselves on the receiving end of death threats from irate Trump supporters.

Wray could be next on the chopping block.

In October, it was reported that Trump was considering firing Wray because the FBI didn't suggest that Biden was under investigation as part of broader inquiries into his son Hunter's Ukrainian connections. Such a declaration might have provided an eleventh-hour boost to Trump's presidential campaign, similar to the one the FBI provided in 2016 when it reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email servers days before voters headed to the polls. And yes, this is very similar to what Trump seemed to want from Zelenskiy.

Indeed, this is the kind of thing Trump regularly does. Then-FBI Director James Comey has recounted a private dinner with Trump at the White House in January 2017 that left him feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Trump asked whether Comey would pledge his personal loyalty to him. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, he told Trump he would pledge to be honest.

Soon after, Trump asked Comey to drop his investigation into retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser. Comey didn't do so. Trump separately asked Comey to publicly announce that he, Trump, wasn't under investigation. Comey didn't do so. And Trump wanted the investigation into Russian interference into the election dropped. Comey gave no indication that he would do that either.

And then, Trump fired him.

Similarly, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the election, Trump was frustrated. He expected Sessions, as a loyalist, to shut down the investigation. Sessions refused to "unrecuse" himself, and eventually Trump demanded his resignation, replacing him with William Barr. Barr fulfilled almost all of Trump's wishes — but he drew the line at Trump's lies about election fraud. Trump immediately indicated his displeasure with Barr. It's unclear what happened behind the scenes, but Barr soon turned in his own resignation letter — with mere weeks left in the administration.

Why is all this so serious? Why so much alarm over Trump's behavior?

In a government based on rule of law, prosecutors and law enforcement must operate independently. The independence of law enforcement and prosecutors, in fact, is one of the major institutions of democracy.

In an autocracy, the autocrat decides who should be investigated and prosecuted. The problem with allowing the head of state to decide whom to prosecute is obvious: It opens up the temptation to prosecute political rivals. Rule of law gives way to the whims of the ruler. Trump's attempts to force the Justice Department and the FBI to do his bidding are some of his most blatant and dangerous assaults on the rule of law.

Firing Wray would be one more example of how Trump tramples democratic norms, even on his way out the door. For years he has acted as if he is entitled to manipulate the levers of government for his own personal benefit. His lawyers may steer him away from danger with Christopher Wray, but it's too little, too late.