20 Republican Ex-U.S. Attys Say Trump Imperils Rule Of Law

Law360 (October 27, 2020, 10:57 PM EDT) -- Twenty former U.S. attorneys — all of whom served under Republican presidents — endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday, saying that President Donald Trump has politicized the Justice Department, demonized local officials and is "a threat to the rule of law."

The former attorneys hail from around the country and have served under every Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower, according to their joint statement. They're all concerned that the president has departed from the "foundational principles of the Department of Justice," they said.

"He has politicized the Justice Department, dictating its priorities along political lines and breaking down the barrier that prior administrations had maintained between political and prosecutorial decision making — a barrier that has been fundamental to maintaining confidence among the American people that their Justice Department is acting as a fair and impartial arbiter of prosecutorial discretion," they wrote.

The ex-federal prosecutors join a growing list of well-known Republicans to back Biden, a list that thus far includes former governors, national security officials and members of Congress.

Greg Brower, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, told Law360 on Tuesday that Trump has "no regard for the rule of law." Brower, who organized the letter with former District of Columbia U.S. Attorney Ken Wainstein, also worked as the FBI's assistant director for congressional affairs under Trump.

"None of us has ever seen anything like this," said Brower, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush.

Particularly troubling, Brower and the other attorneys said in their statement, is that Trump expects his Justice Department appointees and prosecutors to serve his personal and political interests in the handling of certain cases and has punished those who've stood up for the interests of justice.

And the president has undermined the DOJ's ability to unify and lead the country's law enforcement by "picking political fights with state and local officials in a naked effort to demonize and blame them for the disturbances in our cities over the past several months," they said.

They added, "We do not support his reelection."

Biden, on the other hand, has spent his career supporting law enforcement, protecting the independence of the Justice Department and ensuring that the federal government exercises its law enforcement powers fairly, the attorneys said.

"Unlike the current president, Joe Biden and his Justice Department will make every effort to unite law enforcement and the nation in the pursuit of justice — to defend the rule of law, to serve and protect all Americans, and to build a criminal justice system that provides equal justice under the law," they wrote.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment, deferring to the president's campaign. The campaign didn't immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday. However, spokesperson Hogan Gidley told The New York Times that  "[n]o one should be surprised establishment elitists are supporting Joe Biden."

"President Trump has the support of brave men and women of law enforcement across this country and the unions representing those groups," Gidley told The Times. 

Among the letter's signatories are 96-year-old William H. Webster, who served in the Eastern District of Missouri under Eisenhower in the 1960s; Jonathan L. Goldstein, 79, who served in the District of New Jersey under former President Richard Nixon; and Wayne Budd, 78, who served in the District of Massachusetts under former President Ronald Reagan.

Thomas Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, told Law360 that he's a lifelong Republican and signing the letter "was not a partisan decision."

"What it was was a long and evolving belief that Trump is dangerous," he said Tuesday.

Heffelfinger, who's now an attorney at Best & Flanagan LLP, said his disdain for Trump began before the 2016 election, when a recording surfaced of the president talking about groping women. "That's not how you treat women," he said.

From there, Trump's comments got worse, Heffelfinger said, and "his lack of leadership became more and more evident every time he opened his mouth."

He said that prosecutors are expected to leave politics at the door and make decisions based on the "facts of law and rule of law." But Trump has been asking his Justice Department, and his attorney general, to prosecute his political opponents, Heffelfinger said.

And Trump's attacks on local leaders in Minnesota following the killing of George Floyd has triggered divisiveness and more separation, he said.

Heffelfinger added, "Watching his response to that was the final straw."

Brower said he was able to see Trump's administration up close during his recent stint at the FBI, which he left for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP in 2018. And he didn't like what he saw.

Brower pointed to Trump's firing of former FBI Director James B. Comey and Trump's "incessant, unwarranted criticism of the DOJ and the FBI." On top of that, the president has appeared to repeatedly demand the declassification of information — "highly sensitive classified information, including information about sources and methods," he said.

"It's just a stunning departure from precedent in a way that is enormously damaging if it's not reversed," he added.

Wainstein, who now works at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, told Law360 on Tuesday that all of the attorneys who signed Tuesday's letter "care deeply about the Justice Department, its mission and its people, and the importance of maintaining the public's confidence."

Wainstein was at the Justice Department for nearly two decades and said that up until recently, DOJ attorneys have "never felt that their ultimate boss, i.e. the president, wants them to do anything but the right thing."

"It's important to remind people that there are prominent folks, who are centrist or on the right side of the political spectrum, who oppose Trump and his approach to the Justice Department," he said. "And who endorse Biden and have every expectation that he is going to treat the Justice Department as the independent entity that it should be."

Trump's Justice Department has repeatedly been criticized as diverging from well-established ethical norms, including in its dealings with Trump's Ukraine controversy, protests in the wake of Floyd's killing and a criminal case against the president's former national security adviser Michael Flynn. 

Also on Tuesday, a Manhattan federal judge rejected the DOJ's effort to argue for Trump in writer E. Jean Carroll's suit claiming he defamed her in denying a rape allegation, finding Trump is not an employee of the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

--Additional reporting by Mike LaSusa and Pete Brush. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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