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EDITORIAL

The witch hunt that never was

No president should call for the Justice Department to prosecute his political opponents. Trump’s accusations against the Obama administration and the FBI have proved unfounded despite his despotic tirades.

President Trump has called for Attorney General William Barr (seen here at a meeting with members of the St. Louis Police Department, on Thursday) to indict former president Barack Obama and Trump's current opponent, former vice president Joe Biden.
President Trump has called for Attorney General William Barr (seen here at a meeting with members of the St. Louis Police Department, on Thursday) to indict former president Barack Obama and Trump's current opponent, former vice president Joe Biden.JEFF ROBERSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a mark of how degraded our public dialogue has become that the president of the United States can utter things one normally would expect to hear only from a despot — and yet it barely registers on our collective outrage meter.

But that’s the case with Donald Trump’s public call for Attorney General William Barr to indict former president Barack Obama and his current opponent, former vice president Joe Biden. For what, exactly? Apparently for imaginary offenses that swirl in the mind of a man prone to lurid conspiratorialist beliefs and lacking any reverence for truth.

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So it’s instructive to remember that Barr said back in May there would be no such charges against Obama or Biden. Why not? Because, Barr noted, “under the longstanding standards of the department, criminal charges are appropriate only when we have enough evidence to prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” To put it more simply: There is no cause for criminal charges against them.

In the pre-Trump era, such slanderous autocratic remarks from the nation’s leader would have seemed extraordinary. They might well even have led to the kind of public repudiation eventually visited upon Joe McCarthy because of his red-baiting ravings. Yet in the turmoil of our current times, Trump’s browbeating of his Justice Department and traducing of his political rivals is basically shrugged off by politicians in his own party.

This outrageous behavior deserves more attention than that. We pride ourselves on the maturity, and thus stability, of our democracy, but neither is assured. One troubling aspect of this era is how quickly respect for the norms that sustain democracy and restrain authoritarianism can erode.

That’s why it’s important to underline how objectionable it is for President Trump to prod his attorney general to prosecute his enemies for imaginary offenses. No president should call on his appointees to prosecute his rivals. That is the stuff of banana republics.

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Trump has repeatedly claimed that the FBI’s probe into possible collusion between his camp and Russian operatives came about because of bias against him or was part of a concerted effort to undermine his presidency. And in Barr, Trump has an attorney general more than willing to initiate investigations into the investigators. So far, those efforts have turned up nothing that indicates that there were political motives behind investigating the possible threats posed by the Trump campaign’s contacts with foreign entities.

After a lengthy review, Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded that though the wiretapping-application process in the Russia probe was sloppy, it was not driven by anti-Trump bias. Further, he found there had been adequate grounds to open an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

As we just learned, a Barr-prompted investigation into unmasking — that is, the Obama administration’s efforts in 2016 to learn the identity of anonymous figures referenced in intelligence reports — found no wrongdoing and has been concluded.

Yet another expansive probe into the Russia investigation remains ongoing. To date, it has resulted in one indictment of an FBI underling, but nothing that supports Trump’s allegations of widespread wrongdoing or a political plot against him. Word that that investigation wouldn’t be complete before the Nov. 3 election is what triggered Trump’s recent tirade demanding the prosecution of Obama, Biden, and Clinton. Trump, after all, wants headlines he hopes could help his reelection effort.

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Trump’s us-against-them faux-populist narrative needs a villain and a sense of persecution to sustain it. It’s cheap and tawdry politics, the refuge of a demagogic rascal.

America must be better than this — even if our current president is not.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.