Trump shouldn’t politicize the Justice Department

It would be outrageous for a president to ask the question under any circumstances.

But it is especially alarming to learn that President Donald Trump asked a candidate to lead the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who he voted for in the 2016 election.

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There is good reason the federal government is forbidden by law to ask applicants to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about their political affiliations. But coming as it did on the heels of Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey for his refusal to be sufficiently deferential in a criminal probe, and after a year in which Democrats and Republicans accused Comey of political bias, Trump’s question was nothing short of unethical — corrupt, even.

And the question to McCabe, who abruptly stepped down Monday from his position as deputy director of the FBI, was not an isolated incident.

Last year, Trump took the highly unusual step of interviewing a candidate for the post of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — a jurisdiction that includes Trump’s home of Manhattan. The candidate, a well-regarded former federal prosecutor and white-collar criminal-defense lawyer named Geoffrey Berman, was later appointed to the post on an interim basis and is expected to be nominated for the permanent position.

Presidents rarely interview U.S. attorney candidates, and yet Trump also spoke with candidates for New York’s Eastern District and for Washington — both places where he has business holdings.

It’s true that these positions are presidential appointments, but they report to the attorney general, not the White House. And it does not appear that Trump has interviewed many, if any, candidates for the other 90 U.S. attorney positions.

Since taking office, Trump has shown reckless disregard for ethical safeguards and been equally dismissive of prosecutorial independence. So, concerns about what transpired between Trump and Berman, and Trump and McCabe, are valid.

Did Trump ask Berman who he voted for?

Or other questions of a political nature?

Did he raise with McCabe the department’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election?

The extensive public record shows his unhappiness with it, and with McCabe.

No one is questioning Berman’s qualifications for the job or McCabe’s competence. It’s Trump’s treatment of the Justice Department and the FBI that raises serious ethical questions.

Senate hearings — on Trump’s nominees for U.S. attorney or about his directives to anyone responsible for investigating the 2016 election — would be an appropriate place to ask for answers to such questions.

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In the meantime, Republican senators ought to deliver a clear message to the president: Political interference in the Justice Department undermines public respect for the rule of law and the institutions that must preserve it.

— Bloomberg View