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How President Donald Trump could ruin his enemies’ lives

Indulge for a minute in the worst-case scenario.

A Trump Force One flight to Mar-a-Lago in early January 2017. Donald J. Trump — the pettiest, most vicious version of Trump — is preparing for the ecstasies of his inauguration. He sits by the window, scrolling through Twitter and preparing for a well-deserved weekend at home.

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Corey Lewandowski and Chris Christie — yet to be named attorney general — burst into the cabin with a sheaf of notepaper and a couple of silent young attorneys in tow. "Well, boss," Lewandowski says, "we have a little bit of bad news and a whole lot of good news."

Trump raises an eyebrow. "There are some people we can’t figure out how to get back at yet, but there are a lot of people we can," Lewandowski says.

Christie cuts in: "At DOJ, we’re going to start looking into antitrust suits against people and companies that own big media properties." He looks over his shoulder, then whispers in Trump’s ear: "Bezos will pay for siccing his Post reporters on us."

"We’ve instructed the civil division of the Department of Justice to take a lot more interest in libel litigation," Christie says after another shuffle of haphazard papers. "They should start bringing suits within the next month or so — there’s a lot of material we’ve flagged for them about you. We figure one or two of these, and everybody else gets the hint."

Lewandowski picks up the next folder."We’re still finalizing the blacklist of government contractors. Trying to figure out where all of Mark Cuban’s investments were took some time. We’ll make sure that’s sent out to every procurement officer in the government within the week. That’s almost $450 billion in government business, and we’ve got to make sure that none of that money goes to the wrong people."

"Now on IRS — we’re doing Kasich and Cruz first, right?" (A nod from the president.) "We figure we just take the memo they sent out about targeting Tea Party groups and make some changes. Every group that’s ever done a fundraiser with those guys, or put up ads for them, or sent them an email, those are going to be audited first," Lewandowski says. "Bezos, we figure, probably next, maybe if the antitrust thing goes too slow. And we’re not allowing any new groups to get registered as 501(c)3s or (c)4s until we figure out who the rest of our targets are."

"We’re planning offsite, unofficial meetings with the people who run investigations all over the government," he continues. "OSHA, the fishing agency, immigration, you wouldn’t believe how many of these there are. We’re going to give them, you know, some hints about who they should be looking at." He taps a notepad tucked into his shirt pocket. "There’s a lot of laws out there. Everybody’s done something wrong." He chuckles.

Trump does not chuckle back. He merely nods.

"Oh, and these guys — " Lewandowski nods at the attorneys — "pulled some files to start on our anti-snitch plan. Found some great stuff. Did you know we can charge people with espionage for leaking?"

Now President-elect Donald Trump smiles.

The scenario is cartoonish. But it’s not fantastic. There are two people with a realistic shot at getting elected president, and Donald Trump is one of them.

We already know Trump has some vengeful tendencies

One of the big rules Trump lives his life by is this, as written in his 2007 book Think Big and Kick Ass:

"When someone intentionally harms you or your reputation, how do you react? I strike back, doing the same thing to them only ten times worse."

Trump at fancy desk smirking
Oh, hello, didn't see you there, I've been busy screwing somebody over.
Davidoff Studios via Getty

Trump is already assembling a list of the people he feels have screwed him over. He wants to "open up the libel laws" against reporters who write unkind things about him. His lawyers sent threatening letters to a woman who painted a nude portrait of Trump, warning they’d sue her if she tried to sell it.

He’s openly threatened to investigate the business holdings of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. "He thinks I would go after him for antitrust because he's got a huge antitrust problem," Trump said in May. "It's a monopoly, and he wants to make sure I don't get in."

Trump has demonstrated an interest in ruining the political careers of his former rivals for the Republican nomination, like John Kasich and Ted Cruz. "I'll probably do a Super PAC, you know, when they run," he told Meet the Press in July (after the Republican National Convention) — "against Kasich for $10 million, to $20 million against Ted Cruz."

Donald Trump is used to having the leverage that comes with being a rich celebrity. He’s not used to having the amount of leverage that comes with the White House. The president is the most powerful job in the world. The federal government is an extremely powerful machine — capable, if it so chose, of making a lot of people’s lives very miserable.

The good news for those worried about Trump is that while the executive branch is incredibly powerful, that power isn’t unlimited. And a president using the government as a weapon to target and harass his personal enemies is actually one of the things the current federal government is fairly well-equipped to resist.

The bad news is that the government is only as strong as its people. If President Trump — or another vindictive president — were elected, the burden of stopping the president from using his power against his enemies would fall on individual civil servants. It’s a lot to ask.

As senior fellow at Brookings Benjamin Wittes has written, "There is, in fact, only one way to tyrant-proof the American presidency: Don't elect tyrants to it."

How the federal government could go after a president’s enemies — if it so chose

There are a lot of ways the federal government can make the lives of private citizens hell. Companies that rely on federal contracts can be stripped of permissions like security clearances, or simply get all their contract bids rejected. Government employees are obviously the most beholden, but even people outside the federal government have a lot at stake.

There are dozens of agencies within the federal government tasked with identifying and pursuing potential violations of laws and regulations. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association includes members of 65 federal agencies. And not every investigative agency counts as law enforcement: Agencies from the Office of Safety and Health Administration to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to the SEC to the EEOC spend a lot of their time looking at potential violations (and pushing the potential violators to cooperate).

They’re increasingly aggressive in their tactics — in 2014, the New York Times found 40 different federal agencies who’d used undercover agents in investigations (including the Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration, and NASA). They have new technologies and tactics of surveillance: Inevitably, surveillance requests that are supposed to be used for anti-terrorism aims end up getting used in more mundane domestic law enforcement.

And they have the ability to cast a wide net.

A multi-agency, early morning raid of a museum in 2008. Allen J. Schaben/LAT via Getty

"We now have an awful lot of federal laws for practically everything," John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation — a former assistant US attorney himself — told me last year for a story I reported out on prosecutorial discretion. Many of these laws carry criminal penalties for things that used to be simply regulatory infractions. Until last year, Congress could pass a law that created new crimes without the judiciary committee of either chamber ever getting a look at it.

"When everything all of a sudden becomes a crime, then you have a broad field from which you can pick and choose," said Malcolm.

What that means, in practice, is that an unscrupulous investigator or prosecutor could go on what’s called a "fishing expedition." The investigator might not find enough evidence of the crime she’s supposedly investigating, but she might find evidence of other potential crimes instead. Or she might simply harass the investigation’s target enough to get him to agree to make a deal.

Under Obama, the federal government — or rather, particular federal attorneys who are trying to push back against state and local marijuana legalization — used a fishing expedition to harass medical marijuana growers in Mendocino County, California. In 2012, US attorneys asked county officials for "any and all records" related to the county’s medical cannabis farms, a program that had existed for three years at that point. That included "names and locations of pot gardeners, county bank records, ‘any and all’ legal correspondence, etc.," in the words of the East Bay Express.

Because county officials decided to fight back, the request was eventually narrowed so that prosecutors didn’t get access to individual identifying information about growers. But with more easily cowed county officials — or those who simply couldn’t afford a four-month court battle — the fishing expedition would have significantly chilled participation in the legal farm program.

Alternatively, the defendant in question may commit a crime in the course of the investigation — like lying to a federal official — and get charged with that instead of the crime the official was interrogating. Dennis Hastert may have sexually abused some of the high school wrestlers he coached, but when he was convicted in 2015 it was for violating bank regulations in an attempt to pay off one victim — and for lying to federal officials when they asked him about the payments.

"If you go into any institution that receives federal funds or is federally insured and you make a false statement, even if it's a local facility, now you've committed a federal crime," Malcolm said at the time.

You don’t have to succeed in prosecuting someone to succeed in harassing them

Even if those investigations never result in formal court action, simply complying with a federal investigation can be costly: "forcing someone or a company to spend a lot of money, to answer questions, to produce information, potentially damaging reputations if the investigation were to come out," said Sean Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight. "To know the federal government is looking into you in terms of being a criminal target? That can take an emotional toll on you," Malcolm added in an interview last week.

Because there are so many violations, the question of how investigators choose whom to target becomes the most important one. And the specter of politically motivated investigations is always there. This is most obvious when it comes to the IRS.

In 2013, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration found that the IRS had evaluated applications for new tax-exempt 501(c)3 groups, which can’t engage in "political activity," in part based on inappropriate things like whether a group had "Tea Party" in the name.

Conservatives felt this was evidence that the Obama administration was using the IRS to target conservative groups. Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight doesn’t think it quite reached the level of persecution — but still thinks the politically motivated use of the IRS, especially when it comes to tax audits, is a genuine cause for concern.

The government doesn’t even have to use all of these powers to change people’s behavior. Just the very possibility of an investigation is likely to make people tread carefully. Reporters sniffing around might worry about finding themselves snared in a costly audit.

Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists tells me this is one of his group’s biggest fears about a President Trump: that he’ll create "an environment where self-censorship is practiced" among the press.

Until now, journalists haven’t faced too much worry about this. The First Amendment broadly protects journalists, and just the appearance of auditing a journalist for negative coverage is a bad look.

But when you look around the world, this is not a universal standard. In Ecuador, for example, "the message the president has sent to the media is that if you criticize the government, if you report on corruption, they will be liable to damaging defamation suits," Lauría says. "It definitely has created a climate of self-censorship."

In December, NBC and MSNBC correspondent Katy Tur live-tweeted a Trump rally that had been repeatedly disrupted by protesters. She received a note from Trump’s press secretary calling her coverage "disgraceful" and "not nice!" — followed by a tweet from Trump himself, calling for her and a colleague to be fired.

Then Trump singled her out at a rally in South Carolina, pointing to the press pen and saying, "She’s back there. Little Katy. … What a lie. Katy Tur. What a lie it was. Third. Rate. Reporter. Remember that."

Imagine that in 2017, Tur gets an audit request from the IRS for the past seven years of her tax information. She served as a foreign correspondent for NBC before covering the election, and the IRS sends her a letter every few weeks asking for more documentation about how she reported her income while on reporting trips abroad.

Meanwhile, whenever she flies to Europe to visit friends from her time in Europe, she’s held up by the TSA for additional screening before she leaves and by immigration officials for additional questioning after she returns. Then while trying to follow up on an anonymous tip about the president’s schedule, she’s visited at the office by Secret Service agents making an inquiry into the "leak."

Tur and her editors wouldn’t know whether all these things were related to Trump’s criticism of her coverage. But she and they wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise. They’d face a choice: Make nice with the White House, or get used to the feeling of being under the world’s most powerful microscope — and accept the consequences.

The president would have to be careful — but sympathetic political appointees could read between the lines

Chilling effects are generated by fear — and that fear isn’t always rational. If reporters across America stopped reporting anything critical of Barack Obama out of fear that he’d sic the FBI on them, that wouldn’t make any sense.

So "what could the government do?" is only one question. The other question is: Would the government actually choose to do it? Could a president use the federal government for vindictive purposes if he wanted to? Or would the attempt get blocked at some point before civilians actually started being harassed?

The federal government has awesome power, but that doesn’t mean the president can do exactly what he wants with it. If a vindictive president can create a vindictive executive branch, self-censorship is an act of self-preservation; if he can’t, it’s an act of paranoia.

A vindictive president would need sympathetic political appointees in key positions: attorney general, DHS secretary, head of the IRS, maybe the director of National Intelligence. (The head of the FBI is a 10-year appointment, so James Comey — if he wants to — will be in charge until September 2023.)

They’d need to be people — as Wittes wrote in an essay for the blog Lawfare on the question of how Trump could abuse executive power — who both shared the president’s desire to go after his enemies and were able to read between the lines of what he said to understand what he wanted done.

Corey Lewandowski on phone
Corey Lewandowski.
Spencer Platt/Getty

"An unspoken understanding that the Justice Department's new priorities include crimes by the right sort of people," he said, "would be better than the sort of chortling communications Richard Nixon and John Mitchell used to have."

Trump is not known for his subtlety: Indeed, as NYU professor and former Nixon Library director Tim Naftali observed to Vox’s Dylan Matthews earlier this year, "At times Trump acts publicly the way Nixon acted privately." But he’s also known for surrounding himself with people who share his psychology and temperament, people who also have chips on their shoulders about complacent elites and want to knock them down a peg or 10.

Trump didn’t have to tell Lewandowski to grab reporter Michelle Fields after an appearance — but that doesn’t mean Lewandowski didn’t think he was acting on his boss’s behalf. Trump has adopted Christie as a lieutenant knowing full well that Christie was likely entangled in a scheme to cause "traffic problems in Fort Lee" — if he wasn’t the architect, the people around him somehow knew how to retaliate against a troublesome mayor.

It’s not hard to imagine Christie as Trump’s John Mitchell, or Lewandowski as his H.R. Haldeman. If it’s slightly harder to imagine them taking the initiative to tell their staffers explicitly what Trump had only hinted they should do, that’s only because it’s hard to imagine Trump hinting anything — not because they wouldn’t pick up the hint if he did.

The biggest obstacle to the vindictive presidency: moving from talking within the government about harassing enemies to actually doing it

Harassment only happens when people are actually harassed. While political appointees might be the ones coming up with schemes to target political enemies, they won’t be the ones carrying them out.

At some point in the process, some government employee is going to have to make the decision to pick up the phone or stamp the letter and actually contact a civilian — either the target of the investigation herself, or a would-be informant, or whomever.

That employee will be a member of the federal government. He will not be a member of the president’s administration. The difference is crucial.

There is a government that endures beyond the transition of one presidency to the next: career civil servants, appointees with long tenures, and the policies and rules that bind them. I talked to a member of this government about the question of the vindictive presidency. (For obvious reasons, he wasn’t willing to have his name published, or any information about where in government he works.) For the sake of convenience, let’s call him "Mark."

"By and large," Mark told me, "the activities of federal agencies are exceedingly law-governed. Even when there’s no statute or regulation, you just cannot believe the extent to which things government employees do are governed by written policies that might as well be statute."

So by the time a federal employee is on the verge of picking up the phone to begin a harassment campaign disguised as an investigation, he’s on the verge of violating an agency policy.

The places where the Bush and Obama administrations have done the most to expand the power not just of the executive branch but of the presidency itself are in foreign policy. Intelligence agencies like the FBI and NSA are relatively opaque to the public.

Richard Nixon was able to use the FBI and CIA to spy on unfavorable journalists. But even these agencies have limitations. Starting in 1976, the FBI put internal regulations in place that govern when agents can start an investigation — and that explicitly say no one can be investigated simply for doing things that fall under their First Amendment rights. (The guidelines can be changed, as Wittes has pointed out, but that would take the agreement of leadership at the agency — members of the permanent government.)

Richard Nixon scheming CBS Photo Archive via Getty

This isn’t to say that violations never happen. But when they do happen, Congress can hold the agency accountable for falling short of its own policies — even though those policies aren’t law.

Wittes is concerned that the more banal law enforcement agencies under federal control, like those at the Department of Justice, are the "soft spot, the least tyrant-proof part of the government." The intelligence community is constrained by laws dictating when it can conduct and stop an investigation, but everyday law enforcement and regulatory agencies’ guidelines are just that.

Mark downplays the difference between the two. "In terms of who can you open an investigation on, who can you impose a sanction against? Those things are very structured procedures," he says.

"If [Trump] was just going to have the SEC go after some casino companies who he hasn’t liked as competitors, either there would be such a paper trail" that someone could "follow the bureaucratic procedure that exists, or there would be such a grotesque violation of the paper trail" that the absence of documentation could raise a red flag.

At the moment of picking up the phone, the employee would have enough information to know that what he’s about to do constitutes a violation.

He has an opportunity, and a very strong incentive, not to do it: to stop the harassment before it starts.

Vindictiveness is hard to turn into policy — and without a policy, there’s nothing to implement

Yes, the SEC, DOJ, and other agencies have discretion in whom they prosecute. But at a certain point, Moulton says, agencies have to show their work. "If push ever really came to shove and there was an investigation into the DOJ or IRS or something like that," he says, "then the agency needs to be able to produce its criteria: ‘Here’s how we got there; we did the same thing with other companies or other individuals; it was part of this policy that was in place.’"

This is the key: There has to be a policy.

Civil servants are willing to implement policies they disagree with — or even aggressive interpretations of federal law, says Mark. He points to the Obama administration’s interpretation of federal law to protect transgender individuals from discrimination. "That’s more boundary-pushing" than most government lawyers (whom he characterizes as very conservative in their interpretation) would be comfortable with, "but it wouldn’t be such a black-and-white departure from the way things usually run."

Bush and Obama have both pushed aggressive interpretations of federal law on the executive branch. And government officials have gone along with them — possibly because they felt they had to, possibly because they truly believed it was the right thing to do.

But both of those were in the service of policy. The more purely vindictive a president is — the more motivated he is by personal animus — the harder it is to formulate a higher principle that could justify the actions he wants government to take.

There might be an opening, for example, for a Trump administration to aggressively pursue libel suits against journalists. "Donald Trump has made it perfectly clear that he thinks the press has it too easy," says Malcolm — that is, in its way, an opinion about libel law.

His administration might not win all, or even any, of those cases: Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists reassures me that "even if he were to become president, US free speech protections would stave off censorship campaigns or setbacks on press freedom that are common in other countries." But Trump’s administration could try to push an aggressive interpretation of libel law on the courts, particularly through the appointment of sympathetic federal judges.

Because this can be expressed as a policy principle, though, it also is no longer fully vindictive. (And it can also, like every other executive tool, be used by a president of the other party in the future.) But what is the principle Trump hopes for in destroying the careers of John Kasich and Ted Cruz? What is the interpretation of federal law that instructs government employees to go after Mark Cuban and Jeff Bezos but not Steve Wynn?

The federal government has gotten more robust in implementing matters of policy — but it’s not so flexible that it can simply be pushed in the direction of arbitrary enforcement. "It’s just so bureaucratized and formalized," Mark says, "that it would be hard to corrupt quickly. It would take corruption of a lot of people."

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson addresses federal employees. Mark Wilson/Getty

The civil service would be the front line of defense against a vindictive president

Obviously, rules don’t stop anything on their own. They only stop things when people are willing to follow them. That means the real question of the vindictive presidency is this: Would the civil service be willing to go along with it?

They have very good reasons not to. For one thing, if they help do something unethical or illegal, that could be on their head.

"Whenever you have secret decision-making and actions going on, that’s always where the possibility comes in that things could be done for the wrong reasons," says Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight. But that’s why, he adds, there’s a clear line of legal responsibility — one that prevents the civil service from defending themselves by saying they were "only following orders."

John Malcolm points out that if a federal prosecutor, for example, tried to bring case after case into court that wasn’t merited by the evidence, she could face sanctions from the bar association — giving her a strong incentive not to press charges simply because the president said (in Malcolm’s words), "Goddammit, charge this person."

"These career civil servants, they know that. They know that if you do something, if you cross that line and you can’t justify what you did — and if it was just as retaliation, you wouldn’t be able to — and you’re left holding the bag, then at the very least you’re looking at losing your career," he says.

Mark says something similar: "People are going to want to have jobs after this. By and large, people don’t want to be followed for the rest of their lives by having done something outside the line. And so they’re going to, I think, try to impose those lines on themselves."

A vindictive president would literally need to purge the civil service — something Trump has floated in the past

The civil service, as it exists right now, would likely resist egregious violations of law and ethics that were motivated by personal animus. A president could hypothetically engage in the executive branch equivalent of "court packing" — simply expanding the agencies that don’t cooperate so he can fill those slots with people who can — though it’s unlikely that Congress would appropriate that kind of money.

But civil servants who would rather leave than commit unethical acts can be replaced with people who are drawn to the civil service in order to commit unethical acts.

That puts the success or failure of a vindictive presidency squarely on the shoulders of rank-and-file federal employees.

"Would they feel an obligation to just look for another job because their job would be unworkable?" Mark wondered. "Would they feel an obligation to stick around and do their job, because it would be important to do correctly in light of the fact that there might be pressure to do it incorrectly?"

"People are certainly personally aware of that being their dilemma," he says. He doesn’t tell me what his conclusion would be, or what line he would be unwilling to cross.

There are thousands of civil servants working through that calculus right now.

In January, Government Executive surveyed 688 federal employees — most of them from high levels of the permanent civil service — about what they would do if Donald Trump came into office. Fifty-nine percent said they would be embarrassed by his election. Fourteen percent said they would consider leaving the federal service; another 11 percent said they might consider it.

Government Executive Media Group

If most — or even many — of those employees really did leave federal government rather than serve under Trump, the political appointees building a vindictive presidency would have the opportunity to staff up with people who would simply follow and implement suggestions about harassing individuals, rather than throwing up objections based on agency rules. Or they’d have the option of simply going along with an understaffed executive branch, knowing that with fewer people around to know what’s going on, it’s easier to bend rules and skip proper procedures.

"The Bush administration’s attempted destruction of the civil rights division of the DOJ did lead to a lot of people leaving long careers there," Mark said. Those positions were then filled by a hiring process in which applicants were literally asked about their personal loyalty to George W. Bush — though that abuse ultimately came to light.

For this reason, arguably the most terrifying proposal that Trump or his campaign has mooted on the campaign trail is the suggestion that full-time employees be cut from the federal government and replaced by people on sabbatical from their business careers. Just like part-time politicians end up relying on lobbyists to supplement their scant policy knowledge, part-time government officials are likely to rely on the White House to tell them what they can and cannot do.

Luckily, though, it would be exceedingly difficult to change the composition of the federal government that drastically. (Just think of the security clearances.) So the change will be made on the margins: as individual civil servants determine their individual carrying capacities and decide whether to stay or leave.

A vindictive plot might collapse under the force of a thousand blown whistles

Ben Wittes wrote, earlier this year, that the constraints against executive abuse at the Justice Department "reside in an institutional culture […] and that is precisely the sort of thing a tyrant leader can change."

But when a Justice Department lawyer proceeded to write to Wittes to ask him for advice, Wittes counseled him and everyone else in the government to stay put — partly to serve as the first line of defense, but partly so that if anything untoward happened, they would be able to notice and speak out: "Stay put unless and until you are asked to do something legally or ethically improper — at which point you should resign publicly and as loudly as the law allows."

There are ways for people outside government to call out government malfeasance. Losing bidders on government contracts can protest them if they think the contract was awarded unfairly: There were about 2,500 protests of federal contracts in 2014, and 43 percent of them were upheld (or got the agency to voluntarily make a change). Civilians who feel they’re unfairly targeted by government can go to their members of Congress, Sean Moulton points out — "and Congress, if they’re seeing a pattern, or a particularly questionable decision that was made, they can start to make inquiries and go so far as to launch a full-scale investigation."

But the most direct route to calling out malfeasance comes from the inside. "I haven't seen any new ethics guidance on whistleblowing or insubordination," Mark told me, "but you have to think that people will be seeking that kind of guidance in a Trump administration a lot."

He later added, though, that people generally know what they ought to do if given a bad order: "Everybody has an ethics attorney they can contact for advice; you can go to the inspector general, the Office of Special Counsel" (the DOJ office that handles whistleblowers). "If you got an ordinary bad order from a boss, people know what to do, or they know how to talk to somebody who will know what to guide them to do."

The cost of whistleblowing can be extremely high. When Thomas Drake brought his concerns about his employer, the National Security Agency, outside the agency, the Obama administration charged him with espionage. Even in less extreme cases, it’s easier for the government to ruin the life of a government employee than anyone else: Security clearances can be stripped, wages can be suspended, or (as Moulton says) the employees can simply be "given nothing to do and stuck in a corner for eight hours a day because ‘we don’t trust you; you’re not part of the team anymore.’"

But "the good news for whistleblowers," Moulton says, "is that they actually do have some legal protection. Even if there’s an administration that is unsupportive of them, you have Congress."

While he allows Congress hasn’t been as active in protecting whistleblowers as he’s liked, he’s certainly seen "examples of congressional intervention with agencies and whistleblowers, to the point where they’ve been able to resolve sort of a contentious relationship and arrive at some sort of gracious solution."

John Malcolm worries that these days, Congress’s "intestinal fortitude in the face of executive branch wrongdoing is sorely lacking" — at least when people from the member’s own party are committing that wrongdoing. But partisan polarization works both ways: The opposing party will have every reason to lift up the acts of a whistleblower.

And even when it comes to a member’s own party, a vindictive president is cutting corners on behalf of himself — and probably not doing much for that member’s reelection campaign. If the president’s actions present a political liability for the party, why should fellow party members stick up for him?

The president’s most unchecked power

Donald Trump dallas rally Tom Pennington/Getty

The problem is that the president isn’t just head of government. He’s head of state. There might be checks on his exertions of power within the federal government, but when he wants to bring out the bully pulpit, there’s nothing between him and the American people.

This is the biggest concern that the Committee to Protect Journalists has with Trump, Lauría tells me.

"What we have found around the world is that political leaders, public figures, who lob insults at the press, vilify journalists, may be able to advance their political agenda, but they also create a very polarized and divisive environment, which can set the ground for attacks against journalists," he says.

Going back to the Ecuador example, its use of defamation lawsuits is part of the chilling environment there. But so are threats of violence from private citizens. One popular television journalist was forced off the air after receiving death threats.

At Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, his supporters occasionally turn, as one, to boo the press pen. Sometimes they do more than boo. Sometimes they spit, or throw punches or threats. During a Trump speech Thursday, one man stood outside the press pen and took methodical pictures of each journalist.

The American federal government is relatively well-protected against the whims of the Oval Office. But the American public? Well, we might have to see.

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