The White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway has escalated the dispute over Donald Trump’s meddling in the US justice department, claiming a “two-tier criminal justice system” featuring politicised prosecutions is actively undermining the president and his associates.
Conway used Fox News Sunday to pour fuel on the fire of the accusations levelled against Trump: that he is engaging in an unprecedented effort to influence criminal prosecutions in his favour. The truth, she claimed, was the exact opposite.
Far from making a dangerous intervention in criminal cases involving his friends and perceived enemies, it was Trump himself who was the victim of the politicisation of the justice system.
“If you’re President Trump or people associated with him there’s prosecutions that have gone one way,” Conway said, alluding to the nine-year sentencing recommendation for Trump’s long-time friend and convicted criminal Roger Stone which enraged the president this week.
She then contrasted the decision announced by the Department of Justice on Friday to drop charges against a prime target of Trump’s wrath, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.
Directly contradicting her own claim that Trump, despite his “vast powers”, was not engaging in political interference in criminal cases, Conway proceeded to interfere in a criminal case. She called McCabe a “serial liar and leaker”.
She went on: “The president thinks that Andy McCabe should have been punished because he lied and lied several times to the investigators.”
McCabe, a deputy to fired FBI director James Comey and a key figure in the Russia investigation, was fired by Trump in March 2018, two days shy of retirement.
Conway is well known as a contentious figure dispatched by Trump to disseminate highly contentious opinions on the TV circuit.
The furore over Trump entirely ignoring protocols that have kept a distance between the White House and federal prosecutors imposed in the wake of Watergate has dominated the political debate for several days. It began when the president slammed the nine-year sentencing recommendation for Stone as “horrible and very unfair”.
That erupted into a full-blown constitutional crisis when the attorney general, William Barr, released a new sentencing memo. In the fallout, four career prosecutors who handled the case and framed the recommendations resigned in disgust.
Barr tried to squash the perception he had been leaned on by Trump by calling on Trump to stop tweeting about criminal prosecutions. He told ABC News the president’s unrestrained comments were “making it impossible for me to do my job”.
But speculation continued to swirl that Barr had kowtowed to Trump and was doing his legal bidding. Demoralisation spread rapidly through the DoJ and its cohort of career prosecutors, and intensified when it emerged that Barr has ordered outside prosecutors to re-examine criminal cases against Trump associates including former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The gathering sense that the hallowed independence of the US justice system is being destroyed was heightened when Trump flagrantly refused to abide by Barr’s entreaty. He began by making the constitutionally dubious claim that as president he had the “legal right” to stick his finger into any criminal case.
Then on Saturday Trump re-entered the fray over McCabe, claiming falsely that DoJ inspector general Michael Horowitz recommended the former FBI man’s firing. Horowitz referred criticisms of McCabe to prosecutors but did not recommend dismissal.
Conway’s incendiary remarks, clearly following a line dictated by Trump himself, were almost identical to those of Marc Short, chief of staff to vice-president Mike Pence, on CNN’s State of the Union.
Like Conway, he claimed without evidence that criminal justice had been skewed against the president.
“The scales of justice aren’t balanced any more,” he said, “when someone like Roger Stone gets a prosecution that suggests a nine-year jail sentence and candidly someone like Andy McCabe who also lied to federal investigators gets a lucrative contract here at CNN. People say, ‘How is this fair?’ and that’s the source of the president’s frustration.”
Short went on to repeat a conspiracy theory popular in Trump circles: that the report of special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian connections with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election was a hoax instigated by the “deep state”.
“What’s been happening inside the justice department has been unprecedented,” he said, “when you basically knew the Russian investigation was a hoax but you continue to pursue it, you continue to entrap people – that’s something the American people have not seen before.”
The justice row has also become a major talking point on the campaign trail among Democrats vying to take on Trump in November.
Former vice-president Joe Biden told NBC’s Meet the Press: “No one, no one, including Richard Nixon, has weaponised the Department of Justice” as much as Trump.
The crisis over judicial independence is personal for Biden, given Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into investigating him and his son Hunter which led to the president’s impeachment. Last week it was revealed that Barr has set up a channel to review information gathered in Ukraine by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani relating to the Bidens.
“To have a thug like Rudy Giuliani reporting to the attorney general – I mean this is, this is almost like a really bad sitcom,” Biden said.
“Any self-respecting Republican or Democratic top-flight lawyer would have just resigned by now, in my view. It’s just the things that are being done are so beyond the pale.”