President Trump's regard for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and their techniques gives some people the willies. Achieving that kind of power may not be outside his dreams, but it is beyond his reach.
Still, it must give you the creeps when he publicly longs for the power to run the Justice Department and the FBI, as he did occasionally during the campaign and again, often, when legal developments around the campaign and the White House have not gone his way.
When Robert Mueller, special counsel for the Russian investigation, lodged charges against three of Trump's campaign associates for their foreign connections, Trump tweeted again about taking charge of the Justice Department and the FBI. He demanded they start investigating "Crooked Hillary" and the Democrats instead of Russian infiltration of the presidential election.
Since taking office, he has grieved that his own attorney general and the FBI director would not follow his wishes by undertaking criminal investigations of his political enemies and critics and halting the Russian investigation. He repeatedly expressed his dismay at learning that the FBI and the criminal division of the Justice Department do not take direction from the president.
After the FBI director last year concluded the investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state and announced that it had found no convincing evidence that she had violated the law or jeopardized national security, Trump promised that as soon as he became president he would appoint a special prosecutor and get her locked up.
We do not have to recall the abuses of the national police in authoritarian countries — the various incarnations of the KGB in Russia, the SS and the Gestapo, or the police forces under contemporary tyrants like Saddam Hussein, Syria's Bashar al-Assad or Turkey's Recep Erdogan — to know the dangers.
It is not in the Constitution but longstanding protocol that the Justice Department and its police force, the FBI, operate independently of the president. The heads of both are appointed by the president but are expected to strive for justice, not to pursue the political whims of the president. The FBI director serves 10-year terms that do not overlap with the president's. He is not supposed to start, supervise or stop investigations. Congress made those reforms after the Watergate scandal, which followed presidential meddling in the affairs of the Justice Department to pursue political reprisals. Nixon started the White House "plumbers," in fact, when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover proved squeamish about using his sleuths to find out how Democrats were getting leaks from his administration. Trump was demanding the same thing last spring, when the media kept reporting leaks from intelligence agencies and the White House staff. He wanted the leakers exposed and the press punished.
The Watergate reforms in Justice and the FBI were a reaction to the occasional police-state incursions during the long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, who, starting with Franklin Roosevelt, supplied presidents with inside knowledge of their political enemies. If you were around in the '60s you remember the dossiers he prepared on civil rights leaders, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One president, Harry Truman, hated the FBI director because he thought he sought to build a "citizen spy system." Hoover didn't like the Kennedys and supplied them secret intelligence only upon request while collecting information about the president's amorous affairs. But he had a friend in Lyndon Johnson, for whom he supplied dirt and intelligence on his opponents, inside and outside the party.
Last week, on the occasion of the church's anniversary, we were reminded how it can happen on a smaller scale, when the State Police under Gov. Orval Faubus in 1957 spied on integrationists, like the congregation of a little Disciples of Christ Church in Little Rock's Hillcrest, and fed the governor regular dossiers.
President George W. Bush's nastiest scandal was his attorney general's knuckling to the White House political office's request to fire nine Republican district attorneys, including Arkansas's Bud Cummins, for insufficient dedication to the party. A few had refused to announce investigations of Democrats for their election activity in the run-up to the 2006 election. The Justice Department's inspector general said the attorney general had undermined the independence and integrity of the department.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as loyal a lapdog as Trump could want, has so far resisted the president's appeals to stop the Russian investigation. Two years ago, as a senator, he had demanded of Barack Obama's attorney general, Loretta Lynch, that she could tell the president no if she thought he was wrong.
Trump has said that he would not fire Mueller as long as he did not delve into his financial dealings or his income tax records. The retiring director of the Internal Revenue Service, a longtime friend of Trump, said last week that all of Trump's income tax records are held in a special safe so they cannot be hacked or accessed by anyone inside or outside the IRS except him. Trump's dark secrets are safe with him and presumably the successor that Trump will name.
But what if Mueller subpoenas them? Then we will know if his bravado matches Putin's. I don't think it does.