Syndicated columnist Susan Estrich: Trump's latest legal blunder

  • Susan Estrich

    Susan Estrich

By Susan Estrich
Posted10/2/2022 1:00 AM

By now, it has become clear that President Donald Trump's hopes that the appointment of a special master would derail the Justice Department's investigation of him have proven to be short-lived. The Mar-a-Lago nightmare continues for the former president, and nothing about the appointment of the Special Master will derail it.

The president clearly wasn't expecting that judges who he appointed, or who he thought would be sympathetic to him, would instead feel bound by something called the rule of law. But there it is.


First, it was the appellate court, two out of three members of the panel were Trump appointees, and it didn't matter: They sided with the Justice Department, allowing the Department to proceed with its investigation of the classified documents seized at Mar-a-Lago. So much for the strategy of delay.

Second, it has been the special master himself who, far from allowing his participation to delay the process, has set a schedule for review of the documents that is both expedited and expensive for the president, who is bearing the cost of his special master.

The president simply doesn't get it. For him, there is no such thing as the rule of law, only the rules of politics. What he doesn't get is that others just don't operate that way. In particular, he didn't count on the independence and integrity of the federal judiciary in enforcing the law.

It is easy, in light of decisions like the Dobbs case, which overruled Roe v. Wade, to come to the conclusion that the rule of law is a fiction used to hide the underlying political choices made by judges. And sometimes that is simply true; too often, this Supreme Court is divided according to who appointed them, undermining the Court's standing as an independent branch of government.

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But not all the time. Politics plays a role, to be sure, but the president's recent experience makes clear that more than politics is involved. Principle and precedent count.

The special master has shown himself to be an experienced, independent jurist who is determined to act expeditiously and fairly in reviewing the documents at issue. If he is Trump's worst nightmare, as he is proving to be, with his demands that the Trump lawyers put up or shut up with their claims of planted documents, then that is only because Trump and his team misjudged the abilities and integrity of the man they suggested.

The appellate panel has shown itself willing to step in to limit the discretion of the district judge who appeared ready to do Trump's bidding. Their critical decision to allow the Justice Department to move forward with its investigation has totally changed the outlook for the president.

It isn't just politics. If it were, the president would be doing better because he is being judged by those he selected. That they would have loyalties that are far stronger than their loyalty to him is a lesson on what the rule of law means.

The former president must surely be disappointed, but he has no one to blame but himself. The rule of law may be a fiction for him, but thankfully, it is a real bulwark of freedom and democracy for the men and women who hold his fate in their hands.

© 2022, Creators

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