The Washington Post uses the slogan Democracy Dies in Darkness. Given the fact that, in many of the world’s most democratic countries, and to varying degrees, democracy is in retreat, a more appropriate slogan might be Weakening Democracy in the Full Light of Day.

Freedom House, a think-tank founded in 1941 by, among others, Eleanor Roosevelt, studies the world’s major countries and, on an annual basis, reports on the state of their internal governance, describing them as Free, Partly Free or Not Free. In its most recent report, as in those for each year for more than a decade, Freedom House has stated that “Democracy is in retreat” and that “Democratic norms such as free and fair elections and free expression are being shattered”. Among the countries which, although continuing to be described as Free, have seen their democratic standing decline, is the United States. Given its critical role in the world, and the fact that 2020 is an election year, some reflections seem appropriate.

Nobody would suggest that democracy in the United States is about to disappear. In fact, in much of what one reads and hears, there is a tendency to exaggerate. No matter how much President Donald Trump might wish to become king, or at least as much of an authoritarian as his dear friend Vladimir Putin, that remains a fantasy. Furthermore, although they have become greatly exacerbated during his three years in office, the deep divisions in America and many of the threats to its institutions are not his creation.

That being said, the norms and institutions of all democracies are neither immutable nor carved in stone tablets. While they are resilient, they can be threatened and weakened. Among the many ways in which the President has weakened American democracy are his constant falsehoods and outright lies; his relentless attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people” and the purveyors of Fake News; his consistent lack of respect and abuse of those who oppose him, either as political adversaries or merely as citizens; his daily attacks on the separation of powers, as witnessed throughout the impeachment hearings; his refusal to acknowledge and accept the independence of the judiciary; his antagonism towards science-based expertise; and his challenge to the legitimacy of elections.

While each of the above areas of attack on the basis of the Constitution and the generally accepted norms of behaviour in a democracy are extremely important and must be challenged, there are two institutions which, in my opinion, are of particular significance and subject to his authoritarian impulses.

The first and, arguably, the most important of these institutions is the Department of Justice. Although the President has, on more than one occasion, claimed that Article 2 of the Constitution permits him to do “anything I want”, and has also claimed to be “the chief law enforcement officer in the country”, neither of these claims has any merit whatsoever.

President Trump obviously regards the Department of Justice to be his
personal law firm

On a more practical and more dangerous level, President Trump obviously regards the Department of Justice to be his personal law firm and the Attorney General, William Barr, to be his personal and private attorney. Although, in the case of William Barr, one has to wonder whether he does not see himself in that role, and notwithstanding the utterly fatuous arguments of Alan Dershowitz before the Senate in the impeachment trial, all of these pretentions are truly fantastic.

However, the real damage which has already been caused to the Department of Justice does not lie in the President’s thoughts and claims, but in how he has treated the Department and its officers over the years and, most especially, since his acquittal by the Senate in the impeachment trial. After his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, properly recused himself from the Mueller investigation, he was not only repeatedly abused by the President, but was ultimately fired. Of course, the fact that Sessions proudly wears a red Make America Great Again hat and seeks re-election to the Senate, while grovelling to the President, certainly establishes that he was not up to the job.

Although the Mueller Report did not come to the aid of the Democrats, and sank like the proverbial stone, it was not a Witch Hunt, as the President repeatedly claims, and neither exonerated him of collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections nor excused him of obstruction of justice. It is worth remembering that the Mueller Report found only that there was no unlawful conspiracy with the Russians, and that, to the extent it could be established, the President could not be prosecuted for obstruction of justice while in office.

While the impeachment process was essentially a matter for Congress, and did not directly involve the Department of Justice, President Trump’s behaviour since his inevitable acquittal continues what is in effect both an attack on the Department and, more broadly, on the concept of justice itself in the United States. As many commentators have remarked, the view expressed, among others, by Senators Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski, to the effect that the President had “learned his lesson” and “been chastened” turned out to be beyond mere wishful thinking. The lesson Trump appears to have learned is a simple one, namely, “I am above the law and will do whatever I want”.

His firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, his completely “innocent” brother, and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, all of whom merely responded to lawful subpoenas and told the truth to Congress, while no doubt within his legal prerogatives, demonstrates not only his unlimited vengeance against anyone who “speaks truth to power”, but also his insatiable need for unqualified loyalty, not to the presidency but to Donald J. Trump.

One power which the President clearly does have is to grant pardons or clemency. However, several of the recent pardons, most of which followed appeals by supporters of the convicted on Trump’s “private network”, Fox News, were not only challenged as unacceptable, but constituted a flagrant snub to the justice system.

Even more egregious has been the President’s involvement in the case of Roger Stone, his long-time friend and political operative. It is worth noting that Stone was convicted, following a full and public trial, of seven serious offences. Nevertheless, in his usual way, Trump constantly complained that Stone was being “treated unfairly” – yet another victim. The Justice Department prosecutors responsible for the case, following departmental guidelines, although admittedly at the upper end, proposed a sentence of from seven to nine years. This led to a powerful Trump tweet, decrying the unfairness of the proposal, followed by some choreographed theatre between Trump and Barr, in which the Attorney General claimed that the President was making his job “impossible”.

The worst Trump behaviour was yet to come. After the judge, the respected Amy Berman Jackson, sentenced Stone to 40 months in jail, Trump not only attacked her personally and directly, but also attacked the forewoman of the jury as being “tainted”. However, during jury selection, she had been extensively questioned and was accepted by Stone’s attorneys. The question is not if, but when; Stone will be pardoned, assuming that his appeals fail. In his most recent attack, this time directed at the Supreme Court, Trump has suggested that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Notorious RBG) and Sonia Sotomayor should recuse themselves from any case involving “His Majesty”, as they are biased against him. Of course, the principle of bias is quite different in the case of the five conservative judges, two of whom, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were appointed by the President!

Perhaps the most basic of any president’s responsibilities is the protection of the national security of the United States and its citizens. Since the risk of military attack is, at least for the moment, negligible, one is really speaking of the defence against terrorism. Any such defence is dependent, almost exclusively, on the quality of intelligence received and considered by the White House and Congress.

President Trump has been virtually at war with the intelligence community, which comprises seventeen different agencies, since his election in 2016. Not only did he refuse to accept the unanimous conclusion of these agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections, and has continued to interfere, but he accepted Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian involvement, and largely through the agency of the Republican-controlled Senate, has refused to allocate sufficient resources to combat on-going interference. He has gone so far, in the face of all the evidence, as to support Russia’s disinformation campaign to the effect that the interference came from the Ukraine.

It is perfectly reasonable to be sceptical of intelligence. There are occasions when it has been either wrong or exaggerated. Certainly, that happened in the case of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Even there a caveat is required. My reading surrounding the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the period following George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 makes it clear that the Bush administration had made the decision to invade Iraq, at an appropriate moment, long before Shock and Awe. The administration was only prepared to consider intelligence supporting that decision. In fact, it appears clear that, amongst the intelligence professionals in the relevant agencies, there was a dispute as to the nature and quality of the information supporting the existence of WMDs.

It certainly appears that President Trump operates on a similar basis. Several books on his presidency establish that, to the extent that he attends intelligence briefings, he has no interest in lengthy, detailed reports. Most recently, and taking into account that there is some partisan difference of opinion as to the precise nature of the briefing, a representative of the Director of National Intelligence outlined for Congress the current status of Russian interference. The President was apparently enraged. The result was that, almost immediately, the then acting-DNI, Joseph Maguire, was fired to be replaced temporarily by a known Trump loyalist, Richard Grenell, then, permanently, by John Ratcliffe, men with absolutely no background in intelligence. Their only qualification – unlimited personal loyalty to Trump.

“The Republican Party is not napping anymore. It’s dead.”

…. Thomas Friedman, New York Times

I cannot do better, on this subject, than quote Thomas Friedman from a recent New York Times column.

“The Republican Party is not napping anymore. It’s dead. And I will tell you the day it died. It was just last week, when Trump sacked Maguire for advancing the truth and replaced him with a loyalist, an incompetent political hack, Richard Grenell… Grenell is now purging the intelligence service of Trump critics.”

Since the day of his inauguration, Donald Trump has sought to weaken and hollow out nearly all the institutions of government. As some seventy former Senators, from both parties, wrote recently in an open letter, the Senate is no longer carrying out its constitutional responsibilities. The State Department, as an institution, has become almost irrelevant. The independence of the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, is constantly under threat. A legion of senior positions, appointed by the President, are filled on an “acting” basis, thereby avoiding the need for Senate confirmation and, of equal importance, diminishing the authority of the appointee. Several major agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, are led by people who were lobbyists on behalf of the industries they must regulate. The systematic attack on the right to vote, which principally affects the poor and minorities, continues on a daily basis.

Notwithstanding any of the above, and much else besides, and incomprehensible as it may appear, there is at least a reasonable possibility that President Donald Trump will be re-elected in November. He is certainly getting a lot of help from the Democrats, who need to get their act together.

Peter Blaikie is a successful attorney, business executive, opinion leader and world traveller. He has been active in politics, serving as a past president of the Federal Conservative Party. (Then the Progressive Conservative Party) 

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