Tax Return Fight Indicates Trump May Face State Criminal Charges

Update: On August 20, District Court Judge Marrero granted Vance’s motion to dismiss the new complaint. Both the District Court and the Second Circuit have already denied Trump’s request for a stay pending appeal. Unless the Supreme Court grants a stay, the records should be in the grand jury’s hands soon.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. appears close to obtaining president Trump’s tax records. Vance first subpoenaed the records about a year ago. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Trump’s claim that the subpoena should be rejected because the president is absolutely immune from state criminal investigations. Trump’s attorneys then filed a new complaint once again challenging the subpoena, claiming it is overbroad and was issued in bad faith. Vance has now moved to dismiss that complaint. The DA seems likely to prevail and ultimately get the records. And although it’s unlikely that anything contained in the returns will be made public before the election, Vance’s pleading filed last Monday suggests that Trump could be facing a range of New York state criminal charges if he leaves office in 2021.

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr.
Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr.

The Vance Subpoena and Trump’s Lawsuit

Vance’s office opened an investigation in the summer of 2018 into unspecified financial crimes by New York businesses and individuals. Initially, at least, it appeared the investigation was prompted by reports of “hush money” payments by Trump and/or his campaign to two women, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, shortly before the 2016 presidential election. In August of 2018 Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a campaign finance crime related to those payments. During his plea Cohen said he had made the payments at the direction of candidate Trump himself. Vance’s office apparently began an investigation into whether the payments, and how they were documented in corporate records, may have violated New York law.

In August of 2019 the prosecutors, acting on behalf of a grand jury, issued a subpoena for documents to Mazars USA, LLP, Trump’s personal accounting firm. The subpoena directed Mazars to produce financial records relating to Trump and his businesses, including copies of the president’s tax returns for the past eight years.

In September 2019 the president filed a lawsuit in federal district court in New York, seeking an injunction against Vance and Mazars to prevent enforcement of the subpoena. Trump claimed that under the U.S. Constitution a sitting president is absolutely immune from state criminal process. He also argued the subpoena was overbroad and that Vance was acting in bad faith and for political reasons. (Throughout the litigation Mazars has taken the position that the fight is between Vance and Trump and that Mazars stands ready to honor the subpoena if that’s how the courts rule.)

The district court judge rejected the president’s arguments. The judge found there was no basis for the president’s sweeping claim of immunity and that Mazars complying with the subpoena would not impair the president’s ability to fulfill his constitutional duties. The judge also rejected the president’s claims of overbreadth and bad faith.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge, finding that immunity was not constitutionally required. It noted that Trump had failed to identify any constitutional harm or interference with his duties because the subpoena, directed to Mazars, did not “require the President to do anything at all.” An appeal from the Second Circuit decision was fast-tracked to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Image of US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Decision

On July 9, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, also rejected Trump’s claims. Reaching back to an early dispute involving Aaron Burr and president Thomas Jefferson, the Court traced a long history of cases finding that presidents, like other citizens, are not above the law and may be subpoenaed to provide testimony or evidence. Although this was the first time the Court had confronted the question in the context of a state proceeding rather than a federal one, the Court concluded that did not compel a different result.

The Court was unanimous in rejecting Trump’s claim of absolute immunity. Trump argued that immunity was required because complying with such a subpoena would impermissibly distract him from fulfilling his constitutional duties. But the Court noted that it had already rejected immunity based on purported presidential distraction, most notably in the unanimous 1997 decision in Clinton v Jones that president Clinton was not immune from a civil suit based on actions before he took office. Similarly, the Court concluded, “two centuries of experience confirm that a properly tailored criminal subpoena will not normally hamper the performance of the President’s constitutional duties.” The Court also rejected Trump’s claims that immunity was required in order to avoid the “stigma” of being under investigation and to prevent presidential harassment by state prosecutors.

The majority also rejected the alternative argument, advanced by the U.S. Solicitor General, that a subpoena directed at a sitting president should have to meet a higher standard of justification before it can be enforced. The Court noted these arguments were based primarily on cases involving Executive privilege. But such cases were not relevant here because this subpoena was directed at the president’s personal records. Requiring a higher standard, the Court held, would improperly “extend protection designed for official documents to the President’s private papers.”

Although the Court rejected the president’s claims, it did not leave Trump with no possible remedy. Given his constitutional position, the Court held, a president may challenge a particular subpoena as an improper attempt to influence or impede his performance of his official duties. And the president also has the remedies available to any person to challenge a grand jury subpoena, including arguing that the subpoena is unduly burdensome, overly broad, or based on bad faith. But any such claims were not part of the appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Court concluded:

Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding. We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need.

The President’s New Complaint

The Supreme Court’s decision did not end the matter. With the case back in the trial court, the president quickly moved to bring some of the other challenges the Supreme Court said were still available. On July 27 the president filed a Second Amended Complaint, seeking once again to enjoin compliance with the subpoena. That complaint alleges, once again, that the subpoena is overbroad and that Vance is acting in bad faith.  Notably, the complaint does not raise any of the potential claims unique to the president that were identified by the Supreme Court; for example, that complying with this particular subpoena would influence or impede Trump’s performance of his presidential duties. Presumably the president’s attorney concluded such an argument would be futile because, as the Second Circuit noted, the subpoena to Mazars actually doesn’t require the president to do anything at all.

Vance’s Motion to Dismiss

This past Monday, Vance filed a motion to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint, arguing that the complaint does not state any grounds for relief. It claims the subpoena is overbroad or was brought in bad faith, but as Vance notes, the trial judge has already rejected those same arguments in the earlier proceedings. In short, according to Vance: nothing new here.

One section of Vance’s pleading attracted considerable attention. Concerning the claim that the subpoena is overbroad, Vance notes this claim depends on the assumption that the investigation is limited to the so-called “hush money” payments in 2016. But Vance says this is incorrect: “at the time the Mazars Subpoena was issued, there were public allegations of possible criminal activity at Plaintiff’s New York County-based Trump Organization dating back over a decade.” Vance notes that his office earlier filed a redacted declaration describing the full scope of the investigation, and that based on that declaration the court had already ruled the subpoena is not overbroad.

Vance’s pleading cites newspaper articles referring to allegations by Michael Cohen and others that Trump may have manipulated the values of his holdings when dealing with banks and insurance companies and may have engaged in other questionable financial practices. These allegations could potentially lead to New York state criminal charges for crimes such as bank fraud, insurance fraud, or tax fraud. That is why the subpoenaed records are relevant, even though they extend back much further than 2016.

The Standard for Challenging a Grand Jury Subpoena

The president is facing an uphill battle in challenging the grand jury subpoena. A properly issued grand jury subpoena is presumed to be reasonable. Because it is an investigative body, a grand jury is allowed to cast a wide net when gathering information about possible crimes. It may investigate based on news reports, anonymous tips, or other investigative leads that fall far short of establishing probable cause or actual criminality. As the Supreme Court held in the leading case of United States v. R. Enterprises, the government cannot be required to establish probable cause to justify a grand jury subpoena because the very purpose of the grand jury investigation is to determine, at the conclusion of that investigation, whether probable cause exists.

In his dissent in the Supreme Court case, Justice Alito noted how difficult it would be for the president to establish that Vance’s subpoena is improper: “In New York, a grand jury subpoena need not be supported by probable cause . . . and a party seeking to quash a subpoena must show that the documents sought ‘can have no conceivable relevance to any legitimate object of investigation.’” (citations omitted). But this standard is not unique to New York; in fact, this is the general law governing all grand jury subpoenas and basically mirrors the Supreme Court’s holding in R. Enterprises.

Grand jury secrecy makes it tough for any litigant to successfully argue that information sought by a subpoena could not possibly be relevant to the grand jury’s work. As Vance argues, the president can’t plausibly claim the subpoenaed materials are outside the scope of the grand jury’s investigation because he doesn’t know what the full scope of that investigation is – and isn’t entitled to know.

It’s possible that after reviewing the documents the grand jury will conclude that no charges are appropriate, or that it does not have jurisdiction over certain offenses, or that certain crimes are time-barred. But the recipient of a subpoena – including the president – generally cannot prevent the grand jury from even examining the documents it needs in order to reach such conclusions.

Under the law governing grand jury subpoenas, Vance should prevail and ultimately get the documents. How quickly that will happen depends on the almost certain further appeals by the president and how long it takes to get those resolved. If the trial judge rules in Vance’s favor, the court of appeals may be reluctant to grant a stay, which would mean Mazars would be free to comply and turn over the documents. That could potentially happen within the next month or so.

Stalling for Time

It seems pretty clear at this point that the primary purpose of this litigation by the president is to stall for time. As Vance notes, the president has already succeeded in delaying compliance with the subpoena for nearly a year. This has prevented the grand jury from potentially completing its work prior to the upcoming presidential election. Perhaps more significantly, delay creates the risk that the statute of limitations will expire as to some charges. As Vance argues: 

Every day that goes by is another day Plaintiff effectively achieves the ‘temporary absolute immunity’ that was rejected by this Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. Every such day also increases the prospect of a loss of evidence or expiration of limitations periods – the precise concerns that that the Supreme Court observed justified its rejection of Plaintiff’s immunity claim in the first place.  

When it comes to statutes of limitations, Vance may have some options. If he finds an ongoing conspiracy or other continuing offense, for example, then the statute of limitations will not start to run until the most recent act in furtherance of the conspiracy, even if other criminal acts involved are too old to be charged. But it’s undeniably true that delay hurts his investigation and that potential charges could be foreclosed.

What Happens When Vance Gets the Documents?

Assuming Vance prevails and gets the documents, the public shouldn’t expect to see the tax records any time soon, if at all. They will be protected by grand jury secrecy, and as the Supreme Court noted, improper disclosure of grand jury materials is punishable as a felony in New York. During the Supreme Court arguments Justice Alito suggested he believes there is some kind of a pipeline between the DA’s office and the New York Times and that a leak is virtually inevitable, but I don’t think we should expect that to happen. If there ultimately are indictments, then depending on the nature of the charges some of the information contained in the tax records could end up being revealed.

As far as timing, many have assumed that Vance, a Democrat, is politically motivated and will try to bring a case prior to the election in order to damage Trump. But even if that were his goal, things would have to move awfully fast. Vance’s office would have to complete all court battles over the subpoena, get the documents (which are undoubtedly voluminous), review them, complete any additional required investigation, and obtain indictments in just three months. That seems very unlikely to me.

Practicality aside, it would of course be improper for Vance to act based on political motives. And if he actually has a case, he’d be much better off waiting until after the election.  Any “October surprise” indictments, regardless of their merits, would be attacked and discredited as politically motivated. And if Trump leaves office in 2021, Vance could act at that time without facing any of the constitutional issues that would arise from a state prosecution of a sitting president. If a statute of limitations expiring before November is a concern, Vance could obtain sealed indictments and then wait to reveal them until after the election. He could even seek a waiver of the statute of limitations by the president, as is sometimes done during lengthy investigations.

The real significance of this subpoena battle lies not in how it might affect the election but in what happens after November if Trump is defeated. Vance’s filing demonstrates that Trump and his organization are in some real criminal peril. And even if Trump were to try pardoning himself for any crimes on the way out the door of the White House — as many expect — presidents cannot grant pardons of state charges. New York would remain free to act.

This all suggests a real possibility of yet another unprecedented event: a new president being sworn in, and the former president facing state criminal prosecution shortly thereafter.

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Bridgegate and Flynngate

Last Thursday was an eventful day in the white collar world. In the morning the Supreme Court decided Kelly v. United States, the “Bridgegate” case, a significant ruling concerning the scope of federal mail and wire fraud. Then in the afternoon came word that the Department of Justice had moved to drop the case against Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn. The Bridgegate decision was not a surprise, and I think the Court got it right. As for the Flynn case, DOJ’s action was deeply troubling and, frankly, dishonest — the latest demonstration of Attorney General William Barr’s politicization of the DOJ.

Former NJ Governor Chris Christie

The Bridgegate Decision

The facts of Bridgegate are familiar by now. In September 2013, officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed two of the three inbound lanes on the George Washington Bridge that spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan. This caused several days of severe traffic gridlock that paralyzed the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey. School buses were unable to transport students, first responders had trouble responding to calls, and tens of thousands of commuters were stuck in hours-long traffic jams.

When the incident was investigated, officials falsely claimed they had closed the lanes to conduct a traffic study. The true purpose was to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse then-Republican Governor Chris Christie for re-election. The scandal caused severe political damage to Christie, who once had presidential ambitions. Christie himself was not prosecuted, but federal prosecutors did charge his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Port Authority official William Baroni with fraud for their role in the scheme. They were convicted at trial and sentenced to prison.

The issue in the case was never whether or not the defendants had misbehaved. Everyone agrees their actions were deplorable. The issue was whether it was criminal, and in particular, whether it was federal fraud. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court ruled it was not.

Before 2010, prosecutors almost certainly would have charged this case as honest services fraud. That popular theory charged defendants with scheming to deprive victims of the intangible right of fair and honest services that they were owed by someone – most often by a public official. The theory was used to prosecute a wide range of political misconduct that was not necessarily otherwise illegal. But in the 2010 case of Skilling v. United States, the Court ruled that honest services fraud must be limited to cases involving the payment of bribes or kickbacks – core corruption. There were no bribes or kickbacks involved here.

With honest services fraud off the table, prosecutors chose to charge the bridge-closing scheme as wire fraud and federal program fraud. Those fraud statutes require proof that the defendant sought to deprive the victim of money or property. Prosecutors had two different theories. The first was that the defendants had “commandeered” the bridge lanes to carry out their scheme and had thereby deprived the Port Authority of its property. The second was that the defendants had deprived the Port Authority of the salaries of the employees whose labor was necessary to execute the scheme, such as those who manned the toll collection booths.

The Limits of Fraud

The Supreme Court rejected both arguments. The Court first held the defendants did not deprive the Port Authority of property by shifting the bridge lanes. It relied primarily on a 2000 case called Cleveland v. United States. In Cleveland the defendants were convicted of defrauding the state of Louisiana when they obtained video poker licenses by lying on the license application forms. The Court  threw out those convictions, holding that an unissued license was not property in the hands of the state and so could not support a fraud conviction. The state’s interest in the unissued licenses was a regulatory interest, not a property one.

The Court in Bridgegate held that the same was true of the bridge lanes. The Port Authority was not deprived of any property; it still controlled the lanes and collected the tolls. All the defendants did was re-allocate the use of the lanes by different drivers. Like issuing a license, that is a government regulatory power, not a property interest. Even if the defendants made that decision for a bad reason and lied about it, that did not deprive the Port Authority of property for purposes of the fraud statutes.   

The Court likewise rejected the claim that the defendants had deprived the Port Authority of the salaries of the employees who carried out the scheme. Those employees were still doing the work they were hired to do, moving cones and collecting tolls. If the defendants lied about the true reason for having the employees carry out particular tasks, that was not enough to constitute fraud. The object of a fraud scheme must be to obtain money or property; here the object was to create a traffic jam. Salary payments to Port Authority employees were merely incidental side-effects of that scheme. For the payment of those salaries to constitute a fraud, the defendants would have had to order the employees to perform some personal task for them unrelated to their Port Authority duties. That was not the case here.

Not All Misconduct Is Criminal

Bridgegate was the latest example of federal prosecutors trying to use expansive fraud theories to pursue political misconduct that was not otherwise clearly criminal. The Bridgegate defendants did not use their public positions for personal financial gain, as in a bribery case. Closing the lanes was not otherwise illegal our outside of their authority. They just lied about why they were doing it. But politicians routinely lie – or more politely, engage in “spin” – about why they are taking actions that are otherwise within the scope of their duties. Without more, such political misconduct is usually not considered criminal.

Even if the conduct here could have been criminal, the Court said that was a matter for New Jersey state authorities, not the federal government. The Court expressly noted it was possible New Jersey criminal remedies could apply, and that “federal fraud law leaves much public corruption to the States (or their electorates) to rectify.” Even absent a state prosecution, the state’s residents have remedies at the ballot box and can exact political penalties, as they did by tanking Governor Christie’s career. But ever since the McNally case first rejected the sweeping honest services fraud theory in 1987, the Court has been wary of allowing federal prosecutors to use federal fraud statutes to set “standards of disclosure and good government for state and local officials.”

I’ve been critical of a number of the Court’s recent public corruption decisions, but I think they got Bridgegate right. This was bad and harmful behavior, but it wasn’t federal fraud. If the case had gone the other way, then almost any case of state or local political mischief could be the subject of a federal criminal prosecution, because there will almost always be a salary paid to someone in connection with it. Federal prosecutors should not try to stretch fraud theories to cover local political hardball that can be handled at the local level, either by state prosecutors or by the voters. More broadly, I think Bridgegate was one of several recent high-profile cases where the appropriate remedy was probably not a criminal prosecution.

Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn

The Flynn Motion to Dismiss

In last Thursday’s other news, the government filed a motion to dismiss the criminal case against former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador on behalf of the incoming Trump administration. He cooperated extensively with the government during the Mueller investigation. But in 2019, after the Mueller probe was completed, Flynn changed his mind.  He fired his attorneys from the top D.C. law firm of Covington and Burling and hired Sydney Powell, a vocal DOJ critic and Fox News regular. She began an aggressive campaign to withdraw Flynn’s guilty plea and have the case dismissed based on alleged government misconduct.

Attorney General Barr recently appointed the U.S. Attorney from St. Louis, Jeff Jensen, to review the handling of Flynn’s case. Now, reportedly on Jensen’s recommendation, Barr has decided DOJ should drop the Flynn case altogether and that it never should have been brought in the first place. But the government’s arguments in support of this motion to dismiss are dishonest and disingenuous.

Flynn pleaded guilty to one count of false statements, 18 U.S.C. 1001. DOJ now claims it doesn’t believe that Flynn’s false statements were material. Materiality is a very low bar. To be material, a false statement does not need to actually affect any government decision, it only needs to be the type of statement that has the potential to do so.

DOJ says that Flynn’s lies about his contacts with the Russian ambassador could not have been material because the FBI did not have a legitimate reason to interview him. At the time of Flynn’s interview, the FBI was conducting an investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia and Russian interference in the election. It had a separate, related investigation into Flynn and his own Russian contacts, code-named Crossfire Razor. Having found nothing incriminating, the FBI was preparing to close Crossfire Razor when it learned about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador on behalf of the president-elect. In light of that new information, the FBI decided to keep the investigation of Flynn open until it could interview him about those contacts.

Flynn’s supporters have characterized this sequence of events as nefarious and as evidence that Flynn was “set up.” And DOJ has now said it basically agrees. It claims that, having decided to close the Flynn investigation, there was no good reason for the FBI to interview him, even after learning the new information about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. And because the interview was therefore not properly predicated, DOJ says, any lies that Flynn may have told could not possibly have been material.

Flynn’s Statements Were Material

This is nonsense on several different levels. First, whether or not the FBI had properly opened or closed an internal case file has nothing to do with whether Flynn lied about something that matters. If the FBI screws up some internal docket entry it doesn’t mean a witness gets a free pass to lie. I don’t know of any case where a false statement to the FBI was found not to be criminal because the interview was not “properly predicated.” Why the FBI is talking to you and whether you choose to tell material falsehoods are completely unrelated.

Second, you don’t have to be investigating someone personally to have a reason to interview them. Even if the FBI believed Flynn himself was not a security risk and they should close their file on him, there would still be reason to talk to him in connection with Crossfire Hurricane. It would be an odd investigative world where the only people the FBI was allowed to speak to were those who were personally under investigation. People who are interviewed and are not under investigation are known as “witnesses.” And Flynn was, at the very least, an important witness to Trump-Russia contacts who needed to be interviewed.

Whether or not the Crossfire Razor file was properly open or closed, the FBI had every reason to talk to Flynn as part of the broader Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Remember, the focus of that investigation was Russian contacts with the Trump campaign. Flynn had been a part of the campaign, and the FBI had just learned that he had recent contacts with the Russian ambassador. How could the agents possibly ignore that? 

Flynn lied to the FBI by denying he asked the Russian ambassador not to retaliate based on the sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Russia in December 2016. Why was he having that conversation?  Who asked him to do it? Was there a possible link between the incoming administration promising to ease up on Russia and the Russian help for Trump during the election? There’s no question the FBI had a good reason to talk to Flynn, and that Flynn’s lies about his conversations with the ambassador had the potential to influence the FBI’s fledgling investigation into the Trump-Russia connection. That’s all that materiality requires.

What’s more, Judge Emmet Sullivan, the judge in Flynn’s case, has already ruled that Flynn’s statements were material. He made that ruling when denying Flynn’s earlier motion to dismiss based on alleged government misconduct. But the government now says (in a footnote) that doesn’t really count because the judge didn’t have all of the relevant facts before him – even though nothing in the government’s motion to dismiss should come as any news to the judge, and none of the supposedly “new” facts affect materiality.

The government also now claims, somewhat half-heartedly, that Flynn’s answers were not clearly lies, that they were “equivocal” or “indirect.” Again, this flatly contradicts both the evidence in the case and the position taken by the government for the past two years. And Flynn himself has admitted under oath  – twice — that he knowingly lied to the FBI. But as with Judge Sullivan, prosecutors now suggest that Flynn didn’t really know what he was doing.

As I wrote in my Washington Post column about the Flynn motion:

So to sum up: The government claims it cannot prove materiality when the judge has already ruled the lies were material, and the government says it cannot prove Flynn lied when he has already admitted twice that he lied. Such a bizarre argument could be put forward only in a Trumpian world where facts truly don’t matter.

The Politicization of the DOJ

The reaction by former Department of Justice officials to the Flynn motion has been almost uniformly negative. Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg wrote in the Washington Post that there’s a long list of people who thought Flynn’s lies were material – including Trump himself. Mary McCord, Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the time of Flynn’s interview, wrote in the New York Times that the investigation and interview of Flynn were entirely appropriate and justified, that his lies were material, and that DOJ had wrongly twisted her words in the motion to suggest otherwise. Jonathan Kravis, one of the career prosecutors who resigned from the Roger Stone case when Barr intervened at Stone’s sentencing, wrote that the Flynn motion to dismiss was another “disastrous mistake” highlighting the politicization of the DOJ. And more than two thousand former DOJ officials of both parties signed an open letter protesting Barr’s actions and urging Judge Sullivan to scrutinize them carefully.

Attorney General William Barr

This Flynn motion is similar to the Roger Stone incident in a number of ways. In both cases, the career prosecutors assigned to the case withdrew in protest after they were undermined by the Attorney General’s intervention. In both cases that intervention was signed off on by acting U.S. Attorney for D.C. Timothy Shea, a longtime Barr aide who was recently installed to replace the former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu. Both incidents involved attempts to undermine or discredit cases brought by the Trump’s nemesis, special counsel Robert S. Mueller. And both involved personal intervention by the U.S. Attorney General to benefit political allies of the president, in ways that would never happen with an ordinary defendant.

It will be very interesting now to see how Judge Sullivan acts on the motion. He has a number of options. The rules say the case may be dismissed only with “leave of court.” It would be rare for a judge to buck a prosecutor’s decision to drop a case – but this is far from a typical case. Judges don’t like to be manipulated, and you can imagine Judge Sullivan demanding that DOJ officials explain in person what exactly changed that caused them to drop a case they had defended for two years. As a sign that this may not be over, on May 12 Judge Sullivan issued an order essentially inviting outside parties to file amicus brief about what he should do. A group of sixteen former Watergate prosecutors has already filed a motion seeking permission to do so.

Regardless of the outcome, this is an outrageous and disheartening demonstration of the current rot at the Department of Justice. It’s more clear than ever that Barr sees his role as protecting the president and manipulating the justice system to benefit Trump’s political cronies. There is one brand of justice for the president’s friends, and another brand for everyone else. Barr’s decision also protects Trump from taking the political heat that would come if he were to pardon Flynn; instead, Barr will simply drop the case while claiming that’s what justice requires.

This latest incident makes one fear what else is coming. You can almost guarantee that between now and the election there will be reports “revealing” that the entire Mueller investigation was a hoax and an attempt by the FBI and the Obama/Biden administration to take down Trump. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the announcement of some kind of criminal investigation of Joe Biden or his family. As others have pointed out, for an authoritarian the first step is using the justice system to benefit your friends. The next step is using it to investigate and punish your enemies.

That’s why what is happening is so frightening – and so dangerous.

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