The ethical tone of the current US administration was set before it began. In December 2016, when Donald Trump was still president-elect, his national security adviser had a telephone call with the then Russian ambassador. Michael Flynn lied about the substance of this contact to colleagues and to the FBI. The first deceit led to his dismissal from government after all of 24 days. The second, to which he later pleaded guilty, incurred criminal charges.
He will now almost certainly escape them. Last week, the Department of Justice filed to dismiss the case against Mr Flynn, arguing that the FBI was wrong to interview him at all. His false statements were therefore not “material”. For a sense of this claim’s credibility, consider that only one DoJ official signed the filing: a political appointee who is close to attorney-general William Barr. The official who had been prosecuting the case withdrew from it entirely just before the announcement. If Mr Flynn was not germane to a probe into Russian meddling in US politics, it is worth asking who was.
Had Mr Trump pardoned him, it would have been distasteful enough. What has happened instead is far worse. It involves the Department of Justice in a bogus pretext to help a presidential loyalist. It sullies an entire institution, through no fault of the vast majority of its staff.
This is only the most recent instance of its politicisation under Mr Barr. In February, he pressed for lenient sentencing of Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser convicted of witness tampering and other crimes. Last spring, he gave a whitewashed summary of the special counsel report into Russia’s political interference.
That probe, not to be confused with the FBI one, led to the president’s impeachment but not his removal. It enrages Mr Trump still. His recent bile — he accuses “human scum” of “treason” — is that of a man who sees much of the state as an organised conspiracy against him. And so he smears it in turn. On the thin basis of some FBI memos that were unsealed in March, the bureau stands accused of entrapping Mr Flynn. The CIA, the state department and the justice department have all been impugned in recent years. This is a president with enough sway over enough voters to delegitimise these institutions. This is why Mr Flynn is the lesser issue here. As tawdry as it is, his personal story matters a lot less than the institutional one.
To say that Mr Trump corrodes America’s organs of state has almost become an abstract cliché. What is happening to the justice department brings the charge into focus. As almost 2,000 of its former officials wrote on Monday, anyone who was “not a friend of the president” would be prosecuted for what Mr Flynn has done. If he gets off (the judge can, but probably will not, refuse the filing), it will say something dispiriting about the rule of law in America. It will also open the way for more such behaviour.
That a former FBI chief, James Comey, urges DoJ staff not to quit altogether gives a sense of the morale there. The appointment of a man with Mr Barr’s sweeping construal of White House power was always troubling. But even the worst fears have been exceeded.
In a country with no ethnic or religious basis, equal subjection to the law is the stuff of nationhood. The debasement of this principle is easier to achieve than it is to reverse. Whether Mr Trump is voted out in six months or four and half years, the wounds he has left on his country’s institutions are likely to outlast him.