White House

President’s threat against DOJ attorney could have deep consequences for Justice

News leaked recently that Bruce Ohr, a respected attorney with the Department of Justice, testified to members of Congress that he was informed Russia had presidential candidate Donald Trump "over a barrel," meaning compromised in a way that would make him subject to Russian influence. Ohr was told of Russia's grip on Trump during a July 2016 meeting with former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who authored the "dossier" that foretold Russian meddling in the election and a number of other things that have since come to light through reporting and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

Ohr's connection to Steele has made him a frequent target of President Trump's ire. Trump has referred to Ohr as a "creep" and a "disgrace."  Ohr has also been on the receiving end of Trump's hate-tweets, including a recent tweet in which the president said: "How the hell is Bruce Ohr still employed at the Justice Department?"

Last month, the president said he planned to revoke Ohr's security clearance "very quickly," even though Ohr is a career attorney with DOJ and not a political appointee. The threat against Ohr came the same week Trump revoked the security clearance of retired CIA Director, John Brennan, one of the president's most vocal critics. While Mr. Trump has not yet acted on his threat against Ohr, the recent public disclosure of Ohr's Congressional testimony may change that.

How serious is President Trump's break with protocol, which has always protected security clearances from being used as chips in a game of political poker? As it relates to Brennan, commentators have pointed out that revoking his security clearance is unlikely to deter him from speaking out. That's true, but it misses the point. Revoking John Brennan's security clearance was not about John Brennan.  

In horror movies, the scariest part of the movie always comes when the operator tells the babysitter that the threatening calls are coming from inside the house. For Trump, criticism from former officials now outside the Justice Department is an annoyance. But, critical action by federal prosecutors who are still inside the Department is a danger. It wasn't Mueller who executed a series of search warrants at the home of the president's personal attorney: It was federal prosecutors currently employed by DOJ who wrote those warrants and seized thousands of pieces of evidence, including secret recordings of Trump.

When I began what would turn into a 25-year career at DOJ, I, like all federal prosecutors, had to go through a lengthy security clearance investigation. Without a security clearance, a DOJ attorney is pretty much limited to planning the office Christmas party. Imagine then, how much pressure can be brought to bear on someone working at DOJ if he is threatened with losing the one thing he needs to keep his job. 

If the president revokes Bruce Ohr's security clearance, Ohr's done. At some point, he would either be fired because he cannot perform his job or he would leave on his own accord because selecting new paint and carpet, as the chairman of DOJ's redecorating committee, is not sufficiently fulfilling for an attorney who is trained to investigate and lead criminal prosecutions. And, if this comes to pass, the man who made his name by sitting at the head of a reality TV table will have effectively discharged a longtime DOJ employee without uttering the two words for which he is most famous.  

Firing a career prosecutor is difficult and requires substantial proof that he violated rules that govern the conduct of Department employees. Having political beliefs that are different from the administration in power is not a ground on which a career DOJ employee can be fired legitimately.  

The president's public threat to strip Bruce Ohr of his security clearance is a shot across the bow for all DOJ employees.  If Ohr can be forced out for what is perceived by Trump as an act of political disloyalty, it can happen to anyone who does not toe the Trump line. I fear this could affect the decisions DOJ employees make in their work on behalf of the Department.

Even if the evidence is overwhelming, what federal prosecutor wants to charge a securities fraud case against a Trump-supported company? Or worse, what federal prosecutor wants to indict a Trump ally for any federal crime, knowing that he will be subjected to daily public attacks by the president of the United States, who may revoke his security clearance at any moment? 

The president recently illustrated this point in a tweet slamming Attorney General Jeff Sessions for allowing DOJ to indict two GOP congressmen who were early supporters of Mr. Trump's 2016 election bid.

Potentially more dangerous is the possibility that a federal prosecutor will seek admission into the president's "best people" club and heed Mr. Trump's repeated calls for DOJ scrutiny of his political enemies and the press at large.

If President Trump revokes Bruce Ohr's security clearance, the impact could reach deep into what has always aspired to be an impartial agency that is not controlled by the president. 

I know the Department of Justice to be filled with dedicated prosecutors who will do their jobs in spite of any personal costs.

Trump reportedly has said that the job of the Department of Justice, through the Attorney General, is to protect him. Revoking the security clearance of a DOJ attorney would be one more move - in a series of many - to try to make that happen.

Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts.

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