“If American democracy were to collapse,” Cornell political scientist Tom Pepinsky recently wrote, “you almost certainly wouldn’t notice it.”
The past week has been a testament to just how right he was.
While much of the country was preoccupied with the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, something remarkable happened: Every single prosecutor working on Roger Stone’s case resigned in protest. The apparent reason: Attorney General Bill Barr’s intervention in the case on behalf of the president leading the government to file a new sentencing recommendation, one that contradicted the seven- to nine-year prison sentence request for Donald Trump’s political ally that prosecutors had initially asked for.
The four prosecutors who resigned — Aaron Zelinsky, Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed, and Michael Marando — are career officials, not political appointees. They had worked diligently to prove that Stone had made false statements, obstructed justice, and tampered with witnesses in relation to the Russia scandal and Robert Mueller’s investigation, and secured a conviction in November. Now Trump and Barr are trying to get Stone off easy.
This kind of presidential interference with the Justice Department is hardly normal; one former Justice Department official called it a “break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment.” Yet President Trump is publicly reveling in this brazen attack on DOJ independence, tweeting “congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr” on Wednesday morning “for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”
This is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a new pattern of politicizing the federal bureaucracy. Since his acquittal in the impeachment trial last week, Trump and his staff have been on a personnel replacement tear — firing and threatening officials across the government they see as disloyal with almost no pretext. The examples that we’re currently aware of:
- The White House removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified during the House Ukraine scandal hearings, from his post on the National Security Council. Trump called on the military to begin disciplinary hearings against Vindman and removed his brother from his NSC post.
- Trump outright fired EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, another key impeachment witness.
- Trump personally ordered that former US Attorney Jessie Liu’s nomination to be the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crime be withdrawn. In her last posting, Liu had supervised the prosecution of Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort.
- A White House staffer told the New York Post that they’d be pulling the nomination of Elaine McCusker, a career Defense Department staffer who had challenged the administration’s block on aid to Ukraine, to be Pentagon comptroller. “This administration needs people who are committed to implementing the president’s agenda, specifically on foreign policy, and not trying to thwart it,” the staffer said. (McCusker’s nomination has yet to be formally withdrawn.)
Independently, any one of these actions would be troubling. Put together, the pattern is terrifying. Trump has emerged from the impeachment scandal with a belief in his impunity, and is currently attempting to bend the US government to his will — to punish officials who have allegedly crossed him and to protect his political allies who have broken the law.
During the impeachment trial, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) claimed after voting to acquit Trump that he had “learned his lesson.” It was risible then — and grotesque now. Trump has emerged from acquittal newly emboldened to pursue his own interests and vendettas, with a Republican Party fully willing to look away.
It’s been one week since his acquittal. Can our democracy withstand what’s to come?
The real illness of American democracy
One of the central pillars of democratic government is that the law remain as independent as possible from the political interests of those in power. What unites Trump’s actions of this past week is that they each represent an assault on this general principle.
If the president and his allies are above the law, attempts to punish their crimes undermined at the highest level, then he can engage in whatever lawbreaking he wants with impunity. If the staff of the government need to be loyal to this leader, or else risk job loss or even (in Lt. Col. Vindman’s case) threats of prosecution, then the state becomes a vehicle for advancing the president’s crass political interests rather than the good of the people.
This all may sound alarmist. And it’s true that democracy didn’t die in the past week. But this “everything is fine” objection misses the point in two ways.
First, Trump’s actions create a chilling effect. Federal prosecutors are now on notice that the attorney general is willing to interfere with their cases if they implicate the president’s friends, and thus they will be less inclined to risk it. Civil servants have been warned that speaking up against presidential lawbreaking or abuse of power will cost them their jobs.
If Trump suffers no consequences for this behavior — and the Republican-dominated Senate just showed why he almost certainly will not — then this will likely materially affect our ability to stop future Trumpian abuses. Trump’s cronies will feel freer to break the law, and nonpartisan civil servants less likely to blow the whistle when they do.
Second, democratic degradation doesn’t tend to happen all at once, these days.
At this point, we’ve all gotten inured to this kind of authoritarian overreach by the president. We know who Trump is, we know what he’s going to do, and we’ve priced it into our understanding of what life in America today is like. It seems fanciful to imagine huge demonstrations in the streets in the way that, say, the 2017 Muslim ban galvanized thousands of Americans to storm the country’s airports shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
But this fatigue — the paradox that when everything is outrageous, nothing is — is exactly the mechanism that authoritarian attacks on democracy rely on. The slowness, the passage of time, dulls the public’s outrage. The authoritarian gets away with another abuse of power. This is how democracy has been dismantled in countries like Hungary and Venezuela.
“We would not look to the passage of a law, or necessarily even the outcome of an election, to determine if democracy had collapsed,” as Pepinsky puts it.
If a rogue president were to lay waste to the rule of law, Americans would like to think they’d be out in the streets to protest against it. And yet that is exactly what Trump has been doing these past few days — and it feels like a regular week. It wasn’t labeled the week when democracy died because there won’t be a week when democracy died. It just doesn’t work that way.
And that should make the stakes of the 2020 election clear: whether we as a nation are going to allow this anti-democratic rot to spread, or whether we put a stop to it with the democratic means at our disposal.