President Trump delivered a fairly traditional mix of barbs and bromides during his 80-minute State of the Union address on Jan. 30, but one seemingly anodyne claim was actually pretty audacious. “For the last year,” Trump declared 22 minutes into the speech, “we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government.”
In fact, Americans’ trust in their government has plunged during Trump’s first year in office, dropping 14 points to 33% in the Edelman Trust Barometer. And the President seems intent on undermining one part in particular: the justice system.
Since taking office, Trump has accused the Justice Department of criminally spying on him, the leadership of the FBI of political bias and the intelligence community of acting like Nazis. He charged one federal judge with “egregious overreach,” questioned the impartiality of another by calling him Mexican and has labeled various rulings “ridiculous” and the entire judicial system “messy.” Conservative legal scholar Jack Goldsmith calls Trump’s attacks a “gross violation” of the independence of U.S. law enforcement.
For context: in recent weeks, special counsel Robert Mueller has questioned roughly 50 of Trump’s current and former White House and campaign aides, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and former chief of staff Reince Priebus. Trump himself may be interviewed soon–he told reporters he’d “love” to answer questions under oath.
As the investigation has edged closer to Trump, the efforts of his allies to discredit Mueller and the Justice Department have intensified. The hottest fight has taken place at a key congressional oversight committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Republican chair Devin Nunes is the driving force behind a four-page memo containing classified information that Trump backers say illustrates the FBI’s bias against Trump and criminal behavior in surveilling his campaign.
Democrats who have read the memo say it is a cherry-picked attempt to taint the investigation. Trump’s Justice Department says releasing it would be “extraordinarily reckless,” and the FBI expressed “grave concerns about material omissions” that “impact the memo’s accuracy.” After his State of the Union speech, Trump said he would release the memo, but even senior GOP figures are skeptical. “I have no confidence whatsoever in what’s going to come out of the House,” says George W. Bush’s former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. “Nunes seems to be part of the Trump team.”
Not all accusations of political bias at the Justice Department are necessarily unfounded. The department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is probing potential bias there and at the FBI during the 2016 campaign. Horowitz is reportedly looking at whether then FBI Director Comey unfairly handled the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. On Jan. 30, the Washington Post reported that Horowitz has also been looking at why Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe waited three weeks to act on a request to examine Clinton emails found late in the presidential campaign. McCabe has been the target of repeated attacks by Trump and his allies. Colleagues from both parties defend him, but on Jan. 29, McCabe stepped down.
Attacks on the credibility of the Justice Department are not new. Bill Clinton’s team hammered special counsel Kenneth Starr for alleged political bias during the Whitewater scandal. And Hillary Clinton’s allies suggested that right-wing agents at the FBI were behind the request to inspect the batch of emails that Horowitz is now investigating.
But the climate of distrust, stoked most aggressively by Trump and his allies, is worrying. The FBI arrests more than 155,000 people each year. With court approval, investigators monitor suspects, search their homes and otherwise snoop into their private lives if they suspect them of crimes. Few things are more important to the state of the union than bolstering Americans’ faith that their laws will be objectively and impartially enforced.
–With reporting by NASH JENKINS/WASHINGTON
This appears in the February 12, 2018 issue of TIME.