Just before voting to acquit Donald Trump in his impeachment trial last month, Susan Collins, a Republican senator, said she believed the US president had “learned” from the case and “would be much more cautious” in the future.
But Ms Collins’ words are now echoing back hollowly: hopes that Mr Trump would display greater restraint after his brush with a removal from office over alleged abuse of power in dealings with Ukraine have fallen flat within a week.
Since being cleared of wrongdoing by his Republican allies in Congress, Mr Trump has punished key witnesses while denouncing federal prosecutors who sought a nine-year sentence for Roger Stone, the president’s longtime friend who was convicted in a case stemming from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mr Trump’s post-acquittal conduct has stoked criticism that the US president is undermining the rule of law at the start of a re-election campaign in which he stands a good chance of securing another four years in office.
“The president has simply been emboldened: he is systematically wreaking vengeance on all the people he blames for being impeached,” said Laurence Tribe, a law professor at Harvard University.
“Even when the attorney-general was very close to the president, as with Robert F Kennedy, the justice department has always maintained some independence from the grubbiest aspects of politics, but we have entered a totally different phase,” he said.
The move this week by William Barr, the US attorney-general who has earned a reputation for fierce loyalty to Mr Trump, to seek a shorter jail sentence than originally recommended for Mr Stone has elevated these concerns.
The four career prosecutors who secured Mr Stone’s conviction at trial quit the case in protest on Tuesday as the justice department publicly repudiated their sentencing recommendation.
The intervention was cheered on by Mr Trump in a tweet on Wednesday. “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” he said.
Mr Trump has also signalled that he remains open to a presidential pardon for Mr Stone, as well as Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, his other former aides convicted as a result of the probe into the 2016 election.
Further raising eyebrows, Mr Trump abruptly withdrew the nomination of Jessie Liu, a high-ranking federal prosecutor who had overseen the Stone case until last month, to a top job at the Treasury department.
Mr Trump’s actions triggered a wave of attacks from Democratic lawmakers. “We are witnessing a crisis in the rule of law in America, unlike we have ever seen before,” said Chuck Schumer, the New York Democratic senator. “It is a crisis of President Trump’s making. And it was enabled and emboldened by every Senate Republican who was too afraid to stand up to him.”
White House officials stood by the president. “Now the impeachment’s over, now that Russia is over, now that the collusion hoax is done, the illegitimate impeachment sham has finished, [the Democrats] are looking for something else to grab on to because they don’t want to talk about the successful policies of this president,” said Hogan Gidley, the White House deputy press secretary.
Mr Trump’s defence of his former aides follows days of controversy in the aftermath of his impeachment trial acquittal, when he forced the exit of Lt Col Alexander Vindman, an official in the National Security Council who testified in the impeachment trial, as well as his brother Yevgeny Vindman, also an NSC staffer.
The acts of retribution continued with the US president sacking Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU and onetime donor, who told Congress of Mr Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, the former vice-president, and his son Hunter over the latter’s business dealings in the country.
Harvard’s Mr Tribe said the legality of the removals was “doubtful”, but it was “almost impossible” to expect the justice department to challenge them.
Concerns about Mr Trump’s growing sense of impunity had ramped up after the president’s legal team made the case during the impeachment trial that the US president should benefit from broad executive powers in both international and domestic contexts.
Alan Dershowitz, one of Mr Trump’s outside lawyers, went as far as claiming that presidents should not be impeached for acting to secure their own re-election, if they believed it was in the public interest.
Stephen Griffin, a professor of law at Tulane University, said the picture emerging from Mr Trump’s behaviour following his acquittal was “very disturbing” and reflected Mr Barr’s belief in a theory of the “unitary executive”.
“Under that theory, Barr needs to help him, not restrain him,” said Mr Griffin. “If the president can intervene on behalf of his friends why can’t he order them to go after his enemies?”
Mr Tribe said there was still hope that the federal judiciary could remain a check on Mr Trump’s power, and a crucial test would be whether the judge in the case against Mr Stone approved the reduced sentence.
“As long as the courts are not wholly subservient we have not plunged completely into the darkness of a banana republic,” he said.