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This is America's Criminal Justice Stress Test

As multiple investigations of former President Donald Trump march toward critical decision points, their confluence is putting the American criminal justice system through a public stress test unlike any in the nation's history.

The New York Times' Glenn Thrush, who covers the Justice Department, and Adam Goldman, who covers the FBI and national security, write in a news analysis that Attorney General Merrick Garland made two overlapping promises at the outset of his term — restoring broad confidence in the department’s impartiality while investigating without favor the politically powerful — that have proven to be an elusive goal.

They write, "Even in the absence so far of any charges against Mr. Trump, political polarization runs so deep, and mistrust of federal law enforcement is so ingrained on the right, that efforts by Mr. Garland and others to offer assurances that justice is being dispensed without regard to politics are often drowned out by powerful counterforces. Among the strongest of those forces are allies of Mr. Trump who have sought to undercut the legitimacy of the Justice Department in general and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in particular."

The Justice Department “has been a remarkable backstop,” said Lindsay M. Chervinsky, a presidential historian and senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “But the department is being given a role that it was never really designed to have — defending American democracy.”

Even aside from Trump's incendiary rhetoric about his adversaries, Republicans in the House have launched investigations into what they call the "weaponization" of the Justice Department against the right. Now the FBI and prosecutors state and federal are braced for a likely ferocious reaction to any indictments.

Which has been, perhaps, the goal all along: to intimidate investigators into delay or weakening their cases.

Garland, a former federal judge, is keenly aware that the prosecution of a former president and leading presidential candidate from the opposing party has enormous political consequences. And he has taken steps to ensure that the department’s side of the story is being told — disclosing key details of the investigation in public court filings, to make the case that his investigation represents the pursuit, not perversion, of justice.

How Americans react will depend on the sequence of coming events — whether, for example, a tone is set by a prosecution on New York state charges concerning Trump's hush money payments to a porn star instead of weightier matters under review by federal and Georgia prosecutors.

But House Republicans have already made their investigation of the Justice Department a focus of their oversight and political messaging efforts.

“All of these steps are about planting the seeds for a potential impeachment of Garland in 2024 during the campaign, which would be their ultimate demonstration that the investigation, and indictment of Trump, were all about partisanship,” said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor, who served as a legal counsel in the House and Senate.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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