The Radical Strategy Behind Trump’s Promise to ‘Go After’ Biden

When Donald J. Trump responded to his latest indictment by promising to appoint a special prosecutor if he’s re-elected to “go after” President Biden and his family, he signaled that a second Trump term would fully jettison the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence.

“I will appoint a real special prosecutor to go after the most corrupt president in the history of the United States of America, Joe Biden, and the entire Biden crime family,” Mr. Trump said at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., on Tuesday night after his arraignment earlier that day in Miami. “I will totally obliterate the Deep State.”

Mr. Trump’s message was that the Justice Department charged him only because he is Mr. Biden’s political opponent, so he would invert that supposed politicization. In reality, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, two Trump-appointed prosecutors are already investigating Mr. Biden’s handling of classified documents and the financial dealings of his son, Hunter.

But by suggesting the current prosecutors investigating the Bidens were not “real,” Mr. Trump appeared to be promising his supporters that he would appoint an ally who would bring charges against his political enemies regardless of the facts.

The naked politics infusing Mr. Trump’s headline-generating threat underscored something significant. In his first term, Mr. Trump gradually ramped up pressure on the Justice Department, eroding its traditional independence from White House political control. He is now unabashedly saying he will throw that effort into overdrive if he returns to power.

Mr. Trump’s promise fits into a larger movement on the right to gut the F.B.I., overhaul a Justice Department conservatives claim has been “weaponized” against them and abandon the norm — which many Republicans view as a facade — that the department should operate independently from the president.

Two of the most important figures in this effort work at the same Washington-based organization, the Center for Renewing America: Jeffrey B. Clark and Russell T. Vought. During the Trump presidency, Mr. Vought served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Mr. Clark, who oversaw the Justice Department’s civil and environmental divisions, was the only senior official at the department who tried to help Mr. Trump overturn the 2020 election.

Mr. Trump wanted to make Mr. Clark attorney general during his final days in office but stopped after the senior leadership of the Justice Department threatened to resign en masse. Mr. Clark is now a figure in one of the Justice Department’s investigations into Mr. Trump’s attempts to stay in power.

Mr. Clark and Mr. Vought are promoting a legal rationale that would fundamentally change the way presidents interact with the Justice Department. They argue that U.S. presidents should not keep federal law enforcement at arm’s length but instead should treat the Justice Department no differently than any other cabinet agency. They are condemning Mr. Biden and Democrats for what they claim is the politicization of the justice system, but at the same time pushing an intellectual framework that a future Republican president might use to justify directing individual law enforcement investigations.

Mr. Clark, who is a favorite of Mr. Trump’s and is likely to be in contention for a senior Justice Department position if Mr. Trump wins re-election in 2024, wrote a constitutional analysis, titled “The U.S. Justice Department is not independent,” that will most likely serve as a blueprint for a second Trump administration.

Like other conservatives, Mr. Clark adheres to the so-called unitary executive theory, which holds that the president of the United States has the power to directly control the entire federal bureaucracy and Congress cannot fracture that control by giving some officials independent decision-making authority.

There are debates among conservatives about how far to push that doctrine — and whether some agencies should be allowed to operate independently — but Mr. Clark takes a maximalist view. Mr. Trump does, too, though he’s never been caught reading the Federalist Papers.

In statements to The New York Times, both Mr. Clark and Mr. Vought leaned into their battle against the Justice Department, with Mr. Clark framing it as a fight over the survival of America itself.

“Biden and D.O.J. are baying for Trump’s blood so they can put fear into America,” Mr. Clark wrote in his statement. “The Constitution and our Article IV ‘Republican Form of Government’ cannot survive like this.”

Mr. Vought wrote in his statement that the Justice Department was “ground zero for the weaponization of the government against the American people.” He added, “Conservatives are waking up to the fact that federal law enforcement is weaponized against them and as a result are embracing paradigm-shifting policies to reverse that trend.”

Mr. Trump often exploited gaps between what the rules technically allow and the norms of self-restraint that guided past presidents of both parties. In 2021, House Democrats passed the Protecting Our Democracy Act, a legislative package intended to codify numerous previous norms as law, including requiring the Justice Department to give Congress logs of its contacts with White House officials. But Republicans portrayed the bill as an attack on Mr. Trump and it died in the Senate.

The modern era for the Justice Department traces back to the Watergate scandal and the period of government reforms that followed President Richard M. Nixon’s abuses. The norm took root that the president can set broad policies for the Justice Department — directing it to put greater resources and emphasis on particular types of crimes or adopting certain positions before the Supreme Court — but should not get involved in specific criminal case decisions absent extraordinary circumstances, such as if a case has foreign policy implications.

Since then, it has become routine at confirmation hearings for attorney general nominees to have senators elicit promises that they will resist any effort by the president to politicize law enforcement by intruding on matters of prosecutorial judgment and discretion.

As the Republican Party has morphed in response to Mr. Trump’s influence, his attacks on federal law enforcement — which trace back to the early Russia investigation in 2017, the backlash to his firing of then-F.B.I. director James B. Comey Jr. and the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel — have become enmeshed in the ideology of his supporters.

Mr. Trump’s top rival for the Republican nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, also rejects the norm that the Justice Department should be independent.

“Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the D.O.J. and F.B.I. are — quote — ‘independent,’” Mr. DeSantis said in May on Fox News. “They are not independent agencies. They are part of the executive branch. They answer to the elected president of the United States.”

Several other Republican candidates acknowledged that Mr. Trump’s handling of classified documents — as outlined in the indictment prepared by the special counsel, Jack Smith, and his team — was a serious problem. But even these candidates — including Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and former Vice President Mike Pence — have also accused the Justice Department of being overly politicized and meting out unequal justice.

The most powerful conservative think tanks are working on plans that would go far beyond “reforming” the F.B.I., even though its Senate-confirmed directors in the modern era have all been Republicans. They want to rip it up and start again.

“The F.B.I. has become a political weapon for the ruling elite rather than an impartial, law-enforcement agency,” said Kevin D. Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, a mainstay of the conservative movement since the Reagan years. He added, “Small-ball reforms that increase accountability within the F.B.I. fail to meet the moment. The F.B.I. must be rebuilt from the ground up — reforming it in its current state is impossible.”

Conservative media channels and social media influencers have been hammering the F.B.I. and the Justice Department for months since the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago, following a playbook they honed while defending Mr. Trump during the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.

On its most-watched nighttime programs, Fox News has been all-in on attacks against the Justice Department, including the accusation, presented without evidence, that Mr. Biden had directed the prosecution of Mr. Trump. As the former president addressed his supporters on Tuesday night at his Bedminster club, Fox News displayed a split screen — Mr. Trump on the right and Mr. Biden on the left. The chyron on the bottom of the screen read: “Wannabe dictator speaks at the White House after having his political rival arrested.”

As president, Mr. Trump saw his attorney general as simply another one of his personal lawyers. He was infuriated when his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia investigation — and then refused to reverse that decision to shut down the case.

After firing Mr. Sessions, Mr. Trump believed he had found someone who would do his bidding in William P. Barr, who had been in the role during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Mr. Barr had an expansive view of a president’s constitutionally prescribed powers, and shared Mr. Trump’s critical views of the origins of the Russia investigation.

Under Mr. Barr, the Justice Department overruled career prosecutors’ recommendations on the length of a sentence for Mr. Trump’s longest-serving political adviser, Roger J. Stone Jr., and shut down a case against Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty. Both cases stemmed from the Russia investigation.

But when Mr. Trump wanted to use the Justice Department to stay in power after he lost the election, he grew enraged when Mr. Barr refused to comply. Mr. Barr ultimately resigned in late 2020.

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. @jonathanvswan

Charlie Savage is a Washington-based national security and legal policy correspondent. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, he previously worked at The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. His most recent book is “Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.” @charlie_savage Facebook

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. @maggieNYT

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