2017-06-22 / Editorial

Justice Dept. must remain independent

ANOTHER VIEW
BY PETER NERONHA

“I appointed you but you don’t serve me, you serve the American people.”

Those are the first words spoken by President Barack Obama to me and the other 92 U.S. attorneys at the White House in late 2010. Those words resonated then, and they resonate even more today. At the center of the congressional and law enforcement investigations, and the Twitter storms coming out of Washington, D.C., is one fundamental question all Americans are grappling with: How independent do we want our Justice Department to be? Should it exist to do the loyal bidding of whomever is in the White House? Or should it be something more? Does its unique role among all federal agencies — its duty to pursue justice — mean that it must have a degree of separation, and yes, independence from the White House?

I served in the Department of Justice for nearly 15 years, both on the line as an assistant U.S. attorney during the Bush administration, and as the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island during the Obama administration. Certainly the president has the right to set the broad policy direction of the department. A president properly may choose to emphasize particular substantive areas, such as violent crime or cyber security, and favor certain strategies to combat such threats.

But when it comes to direct involvement in the department’s core, day-to-day, investigative function, it is far, far better, and indeed critical, that the White House steer well clear. Independence, not loyalty, must be the watchword of the department, because only independence — independence to follow the facts and the law wherever they lead — results in justice.

Justice means the meek and the powerful are treated alike under the law. This is the bedrock of our democratic institutions; indeed, the precept that all men and women are equal is found in the very first lines of the Declaration of Independence. Loyalty to the powerful by those entrusted to pursue justice, indeed to the most powerful person of all — the president — obviously contravenes this principle, and can well mean that justice is denied.

This is why President Donald Trump’s emphasis on loyalty, manifested in particular in his firings of former FBI Director James Comey and more recently in his rumblings on Twitter and through surrogates about the credibility and independence of Special Counsel Robert Mueller (and even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein), should give Americans plenty of pause.

We may agree or disagree with the decisions Comey and Mueller have made or will make in the future. I myself have not agreed with every decision Comey has made, and I may not agree with future decisions by Mueller. But I do know both men reasonably well through my service as U.S. attorney, and, like nearly everyone else, I have never doubted their ability, integrity and independence. Indeed, their backgrounds make that manifest. That is something Americans can count on, and are well served by. That should be enough for the president, too.

The investigative matters on Mueller’s plate are important ones. They include Gen. Michael Flynn’s alleged involvement with foreign governments (Turkey and Russia) and dishonesty with the vice president and federal agents. They include the critical issue of whether Americans, perhaps associated with the Trump campaign, colluded with the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Because the president seemingly fails to appreciate the need for an independent Justice Department, including an independent FBI, obstruction of justice now also may be on the list.

Investigation of these complicated legal and factual issues won’t be quick. There may or may not be something there. But let’s let Mueller do his job. Allowed to do it without interference, Americans will be able to rely on his conclusions, whatever they are.

Jamestown resident Peter Neronha is the former U.S. attorney for Rhode Island.

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