WASHINGTON – President Trump on Monday questioned the federal criminal cases against Rep. Chris Collins and another Republican congressman in a midafternoon Twitter attack on the nation's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, that prompted bipartisan cries of outrage.
"Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department," Trump tweeted at 2:25 p.m. "Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......"
Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2018
The tweet refers to Collins, the Clarence Republican who was arrested on federal insider trading charges Aug. 8, as well as Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, who was indicted Aug. 21 on charges tied to the alleged misuse of his campaign funds.
Trump's latest tweet caused something of a firestorm on what was otherwise a sleepy, sunny Labor Day in Washington.
“The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice – one for the majority party and one for the minority party," tweeted Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who is at frequent odds with the president. "These two men have been charged with crimes because of evidence, not because of who the President was when the investigations began."
Most other elected Republicans remained silent on Trump's tweet. But Bill Kristol, editor at large at the conservative Weekly Standard and a longtime Trump critic, suggested on Twitter that Democrats ought to ask Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing this week about the president's latest attack on a criminal prosecution brought by his own Justice Department.
"Hey, Don McGahn, you're on your way out anyway. How about a resignation on principle today as White House Counsel?" Kristol tweeted, suggesting that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly might want to resign in protest of Trump's latest attack on Sessions as well.
Meantime, John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University, noted in a phone interview that faithful execution of the laws is part of the presidential oath that Trump swore to at his inauguration.
"This just shows how lost the president is in terms of what his responsibilities as president are," said Barrett, who teaches Constitutional law, criminal procedure and legal history. "What he's doing now is putting the electoral interests of the president above faithful and nonpartisan law enforcement. It's just dismaying."
The tweet was the president's first public acknowledgement, vague as it was, of the arrests of the first two House Republicans to back Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. Collins was an especially vociferous Trump supporter, going on television dozens of times to defend him in recent years.
Problems with the tweet
Trump's tweet included two obvious errors. The probe that led to Collins' arrest was not an Obama-era investigation. The indictment in the Collins case centers on actions the congressman is accused of taking in June 2017 – five months after Trump took office.
Prosecutors say Collins called his son, Cameron Collins, from a White House picnic in late June 2017, setting off a chain of insider stock trades in an Australian biotech firm in which both the congressman and his son were heavily invested.
In addition, media reports of the case against Hunter indicate that the Department of Justice began its investigation of his campaign spending in 2017, after Trump became president.
Trump's tweet also ignores the political realities of the districts Collins and Hunter both represent, in that the tweet implies that Republicans will lose both seats.
Local GOP leaders are struggling to find a way to remove Collins' name from the ballot and run another candidate in the race. But if they fail, the district is so heavily Republican in enrollment that Collins could win his race against Democrat Nathan McMurray even though the indicted Republican has suspended his campaign.
Similarly, Hunter is vowing to run for re-election – and he could win in his heavily Republican California district.
The tweet referring to Collins and Hunter is the president's latest attack on his own attorney general. An early Trump loyalist, Sessions recused himself from the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election early last year, thereby drawing Trump's ire.
After Sessions did so – and after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 – Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russia's election involvement.
Trump has been attacking both the Mueller investigation and his own attorney general ever since. CNN collected 25 Trump tweets aimed at Sessions as of Aug. 25, so Monday's missive was the 26th.
And it left Democrats with additional ammunition with which to attack the president.
The Senate Democrats – headed by Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York – retweeted Trump's tweet with a quote from Kavanaugh, the Trump Supreme Court nominee that they hope to block.
"The president is the chief law enforcement officer. That is one of the bedrock principles that has gotten lost since Nixon," the Kavanaugh quote said.
The Senate Democrats followed up by saying of Trump's tweet: "This should worry all Americans who believe in law and order."
For his part, McMurray -- Collins' opponent -- tried to turn the president's tweet to his own advantage.
“President Trump just acknowledged what we all know: what was long considered a slam-dunk election for Congressman Collins is now in doubt and the reasoning is clear– Congressman Collins spent more time worrying about making millions for his buddies than he did helping working families in Western New York,” said McMurray.
Legal experts remained far more focused on Trump than on Collins.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor who now serves as a legal analyst for CNN, retweeted Trump's missive and asked: "Are you implying that it’s the Attorney General’s job to quash investigations of your political allies?"
Few if any legal experts rushed to Trump's defense.
"I think this is the lowest low of all the lows," Barrett, the St. John's law professor, said of Trump's tweet. "I can't imagine who would defend this."