Under Trump, the DOJ Will Become the Legal Wing of the MAGA Movement

Should Trump win, conservatives have a plan to use the DOJ to make their darkest desires legal, while removing the legal means to stop them.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.

There has probably never been a president who was more ignorant of the government, the Constitution, and the laws of this country than Donald Trump was in 2017. The man came to power with a child’s understanding of civics and a mob boss’s understanding of power. Instead of using the power of government to effectuate his agenda, he thought he could simply bend the law to his will.

Trump was wrong, and the Department of Justice showed him why. Trump fired FBI director James Comey (whose decision to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails happened to be one of the proximate causes of his election in the first place) for his lack of loyalty. That led the DOJ to investigate Trump’s abuse of power. Trump likely assumed that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a longtime senator and an early supporter of Trump’s vile candidacy, would put a stop to the inquiry. But to Trump’s surprise, Sessions followed department rules and norms and recused himself from the case, leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to handle the investigation. Rosenstein eventually appointed former FBI director Bob Mueller as a special counsel, and while Trump was never held accountable for this crime, he learned that the Justice Department could be a threat to his lawless abuse of power.

It’s a lesson he will not have forgotten if he wins or steals a second term. Mandate for Leadership, the Project 2025 blueprint for an eventual authoritarian takeover of the federal government, contains a lot of dangerous proposals for how Trump and his ruling conservatives can remake the executive branch. The authors’ ideas for the Department of Justice reflect not only their lust for unchallenged power, but also a deep fear of the DOJ’s independence—and, more particularly, the way that independence might be used against them if the DOJ is not brought to heel. Put simply: The conservatives hope to use the DOJ to make their darkest desires legal, while at the same time taking away the best legal means to stop them.

As a first step, the Project 2025 Mandate recommends hollowing out the FBI. Why the FBI? Think of it this way: If Project 2025 is basically a conservative heist plot, then the chapter on the DOJ is the part where the plotters explain how they plan to take out the security cameras and floodlights so they can proceed under the cover of darkness.

The chapter begins like the Seinfeld holiday of Festivus: with an airing of grievances that the conservatives have against the FBI, including its alleged attempts to “convince social media companies and the media generally that the story about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop was the result of a Russian misinformation campaign.” There are also entire paragraphs dedicated to railing against the FBI and the DOJ for trying to halt the spread of lies about the 2020 election—and, again, if you understand who these people are, you can see why stopping the government from policing their lies is a key goal.

In order to accomplish this, Project 2025 proposes pushing Congress to demote the FBI, and its director, to a lower rung on the DOJ’s organizational chart and make the director report to a political functionary. It also wants Congress to eliminate the 10-year term of the FBI director to make it easier for the president to replace the director at will, like most other political appointees. Again, Trump got burned for firing Comey, and this proposal would make sure any future FBI director is sufficiently loyal.

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If the conservatives simply wanted to destroy the FBI, I might agree with them. Even a cursory knowledge of the bureau’s history shows that the FBI is problematic: a dangerous tool of the surveillance state that, more often than not, has been deployed against civil liberties, civil rights, and social progress.

The problem with Project 2025 is that it doesn’t actually want to destroy the FBI; it wants to get rid of its independence—while keeping all of the FBI’s jackbooted thuggery so that it can hurt the “right” people. The Project 2025 Mandate calls for renewing the bureau’s focus on “violent” crime—and that word choice is important, because it leaves out nonviolent crimes like bank fraud, tax evasion, bribery, and document theft—you know, all the things that Trump or his business or donor-class friends are accused of doing. The document further suggests stripping the FBI of its legal workforce—the 300 or so attorneys employed by the bureau—which would turn the FBI into an even blunter weapon than it already is, completely untethered from the Constitution or civil rights.

In line with the mission of hurting the “right” people, Mandate’s chapter on the DOJ details big plans for resuming Trump’s campaign against immigrants. Those plans include deploying the power of the Justice Department against Democrats who govern in “sanctuary cities.” Indeed, there’s a whole paragraph devoted to the wild idea of using the DOJ to sue district attorneys who use their discretion in ways that the conservatives don’t like—including, though hardly limited to, refusing to help deport immigrants:

Where warranted and proper under federal law, initiate legal action against local officials—including District Attorneys—who deny American citizens the “equal protection of the laws” by refusing to prosecute criminal offenses in their jurisdictions. This holds true particularly for jurisdictions that refuse to enforce the law against criminals based on the Left’s favored defining characteristics of the would-be offender (race, so-called gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.) or other political considerations (e.g., immigration status).

That paragraph is bonkers (and its recommendations would be unconstitutional if the people behind Project 2025 hadn’t already secured a conservative Supreme Court to rubber-stamp their authoritarian plans). But it reflects a general trend in Mandate’s chapter on the DOJ to put the department on the offense against the favored targets of the MAGA movement: people of color, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

Toward that end, this chapter proposes transforming the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ into a tool to fight for white supremacy instead of against it. It aims to do this by using the division to prosecute institutions and organizations that promote diversity as violating the civil rights and equal protection of whites, and it’s the logical conclusion of the conservative assault on affirmative action and DEI programs. Here’s the breathless language:

and other federal entities—has enshrined affirmative discrimination in all aspects of its operations under the guise of “equity.” Federal agencies and their components have established so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices that have become the vehicles for this unlawful discrimination…. The Civil Rights Division should spend its first year under the next Administration using the full force of federal prosecutorial resources to investigate and prosecute all state and local governments, institutions of higher education, corporations, and any other private employers who are engaged in discrimination in violation of constitutional and legal requirements.

Using the DOJ to sue companies that hire people of color or women is meant to dissuade companies from hiring people of color or women, because according to conservative whites, anytime a person of color or a woman is hired for anything, it is because of affirmative action or DEI. This section is an attempt to whitewash America through force of law, since “the market” has rejected white supremacy (at least superficially) as a sound business practice.

When you break down what Project 2025 wants to do with the Justice Department, it’s chilling and terrifying, and yet I’m also struck by how petty and mean-spirited the tone of the document is. These people are consumed by their personal grievances (against Black people, against the media, against Hunter Biden and his laptop). There are multiple passages devoted to complaining that the DOJ has prosecuted people who threaten abortion clinics and parents who threaten school boards, as if being vile and hateful toward pregnant people and schoolteachers is their most precious “freedom.” Giving these people the DOJ is like giving a chimpanzee a gun: It’s inherently dangerous even when the chimp wields it like a crooked club.

Next time, Trump will not be handing the DOJ to people like Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr—people who wanted to use the department to further the MAGA agenda but felt bound by the rule of law. Next time, Trump will let someone like Stephen Miller, a ghoul who wants the law to promote bigotry instead of eradicating it, run the Justice Department. He’ll hand it to a devout loyalist and unreconstructed racist who wants to weaken the DOJ so it can’t hurt Trump, while weaponizing it against Trump’s enemies and the vulnerable communities he has decided to harass and terrorize.

Project 2025 is telling us exactly how the conservatives plan to take away the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I beg the American people to believe them. This dystopian future isn’t a threat, it’s a certainty, should we give these people power again.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.