By Trudy Rubin/The Philadelphia Inquirer
Russians have a great phrase to describe what can happen when the Kremlin or a senior bureaucrat takes a personal interest in a court case.
They call it “telephone justice.” That means the official picks up a phone and tells the judge what verdict to deliver. It’s a phrase that dates back to Soviet Union days, when the Communist party always dictated outcomes to the judge.
Under President Trump, the US hasn’t quite reached the “telephone justice” phase yet. Not quite.
But the president’s open interference in the Roger Stone verdict and his vicious Twitter attacks on judges display his disrespect for the country’s justice system. His misuse of the Justice Department to go after political rivals and “enemies” – abetted by Attorney General William P Barr – is scary.
His ugly threats against those who testified in the impeachment hearings are kind of rhetoric we’d expect from the autocrats he openly praises, in Russia, China, the Philippines and elsewhere. Are those the types of justice systems he’d prefer if he’s re-elected this year?
Think about it. Here’s what Vladimir Putin did when he faced a truly potent political opponent in the early 2000s: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a talented oil magnate who sought to modernise the corrupt Russian system, was arrested on fake tax charges and sent off to a Siberian prison for a decade, then sent into exile.
America doesn’t have Siberia – but Trump’s relentless insistence on pursuing the investigated-to-death Hillary Clinton e-mail story, years after he defeated her, is pathological. A Justice Department investigation, started two years ago to mollify Trump’s far right and Fox News, has produced nothing. Heaven knows what the president will trump up if he wins in 2020.
And then there is Barr’s recent announcement that the Justice Department still intends to consider information from Rudy Giuliani about Ukraine, including possible claims about Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Even after witness upon witness at the impeachment hearings laid out in painstaking detail how Giuliani consorted with corrupt Ukrainians and spewed total falsehoods.
Barr knows, as do any GOP senators interested in facts, that Biden was fighting corruption, while Giuliani was promoting it. Biden sought the ouster of a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was refusing to prosecute the co-owner of Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. The European Union, International Monetary Fund, Ukraine’s top anti-corruption organisations and its parliament all wanted Shokin fired – because he was corrupt.
“Prosecutor Shokin had to go because he was unwilling to prosecute Burisma,” says Brian Bonner, executive editor of Ukraine’s Kyiv Post, which exhaustively covered this story. Yet Giuliani, who pursued shady characters and business deals in Kyiv, turned the truth on its head.
And Barr, who admitted Giuliani’s evidence couldn’t be taken “at face value”, is still willing to consider his information. Why? Is the country headed for telephone justice here, egged on by Trump?
But America has independent courts, you say. Yes it still does. Trump does not have the freedom of, say, a Xi Jinping, whose courts are officially required to accept the Communist Party’s dictates.
Yet Trump frequently and viciously attacks judges whose verdicts he dislikes, including the judge who will be handing down the Stone verdict, slurs like “gift to the criminal,” “so-called judge,” or “Trump hater.” Often these judges have also returned verdicts favourable to him, or been GOP appointees, but that matters not.
“This is not normal,” said US District Court Judge Paul Friedman, of the District of Columbia, in a powerful speech last year. “This kind of personal attack on courts and individual judges violates all recognised democratic norms.”
Indeed, Trump’s slime of the judiciary has become so outrageous that Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr. felt compelled to issue a rare rebuke of Trump’s criticism of a so-called “Obama judge” who ruled against him. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in 2018. The independent judiciary, he continued, “is something we should all be thankful for.”
Trump, however, doesn’t want an independent judiciary that follows the law and the constitution. “If it’s my judges,” he told a campaign audience in 2016, “you know how they’re going to decide.” To this president, that means in favour of Trump.
What’s even more unnerving is Trump’s admiration for vigilante justice. He praised the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte for his “unbelievable job” in dealing with the drug problem. Duterte has notoriously encouraged public vigilantism and 7,000 so-called drug dealers were shot dead on the streets in his first few months in office. At rallies, Trump has subtly egged on his followers towards vigilante justice.
A look at the “justice” systems of Russia, China and the Philippines reminds one of the rare value of rule of law and judicial independence. And what the alternatives are, if the president keeps undermining the public’s belief in their importance. Telephone justice? Vigilante justice? Americans can have that if that’s what Trump convinces the public they want.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at [email protected]
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