Whatever revelations the redacted version of the Mueller report may hold, they will not be as disturbing as the behavior of President Trump and his team in the days and weeks leading up to its release.
That is not a reference to the president’s panic-tweeting, nor does it refer to his other efforts to distract, obfuscate, or shift blame. Instead, it is acknowledgement of something more insidious that is afoot, something that may be hinted at by Robert Mueller’s findings but which we are now seeing fully realized—a full-scale and disturbingly successful assault on the rule of law in America.
Something broke in America in the past week or two. We have been spiraling downward since Trump’s election, but in these early days of spring 2019, we have crossed a line. The president and his men began asserting that they were above the law—and effectively no one in our system did anything to stop them.
Attorney General Bill Barr sneered at the Congress and placed himself imperiously above its questions. We saw this, of course, in his handling of the Mueller report. He has kept it from America and asserted—far beyond anything contemplated by statute or hinted at by precedent—that he alone could and should determine what portions of the results of the special counsel’s investigation we would see. This despite the facts that it was paid for by the people and that the release of its complete and unexpurgated findings is essential for Congress to do its duty.
In that process, we have also seen him assert—again without basis in statute or precedent—that he was the final arbiter of whether obstruction of justice by the president had taken place. But last week, he went even further, going so far as to imply that law enforcement authorities carrying out their duty to protect America were somehow “spying,” perhaps illicitly, on the Trump campaign.
Barr did this despite knowing full well that there was an urgent and proven national security rationale for the investigation. He did it despite knowing the Mueller team confirmed yet again that reason, the effort by Russia’s intelligence community to compromise our electoral process and to support the candidacy of Trump. He disregarded the facts to serve the narrative of his boss but also, shockingly, appallingly, to discredit the work of the law enforcement professionals who undertook the investigation and who, ultimately, report to him. It was equally a betrayal of his oath and of his dedicated colleagues at the Department of Justice.
At the same time, also last week, the secretary of the treasury and the head of the IRS determined to violate a law that required in no uncertain terms for them to provide the president’s tax returns to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Simultaneously, a massive leadership purge at the Department of Homeland Security took place, and it became quickly clear it was because the president and his team were frustrated that officials would not act in violation of the law. We learned that the White House promised pardons to those who break the law, encouraging a crime and abetting it. We learned that they considered an egregious abuse of power that would involve releasing undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities controlled by Democrats.
We saw the president complain that our military would not rough up immigrants. We saw him continue the charade of an emergency at our southern border, which was an excuse for him to illegally divert government resources to an unnecessary, racist vanity project.
At the same time, echoing his attorney general and going, as he typically does, to even more outrageous extremes, the president repeatedly called law enforcement officers who investigated him traitors, guilty of treason—a crime that carries with it the possibility of the death penalty. We also discovered, again, all in the past few days, that the president considered appointing his grossly unqualified daughter to be head of the World Bank. Days before we learned he ignored the advice of career professionals from the intelligence and law enforcement communities to grant access to sensitive secrets to that same daughter and her husband and dozens of others who were seen by trained professionals as security risks.
It is the stuff of the world's most dysfunctional tinpot dictatorships or self-dealing monarchies. But rather than generating a response from within our system commensurate with the threat, nothing occurred. The GOP leaders in the Senate circled ’round the president and supported his abuses.
In so doing, they sent a message that they would never challenge him, much less convict him of the myriad crimes he has committed. The checks and balances our system was built upon are gone. Some have been sold off to the highest bidder—well illustrated when Paul Manafort client and Vladimir Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska, who won a favorable ruling from our Treasury Department despite hideous optics and serious policy objections, announced a multimillion-dollar reward for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: an aluminum mill in his home state of Kentucky.
Worse, one of the reasons McConnell and the GOP are turning a blind eye to Trump’s outrages is that together with him they are achieving the lifelong dream of packing our courts with right-wing operatives. Many of these nominees are unqualified. And some in future cases they may choose party over duty and, from the bench, enable Trump’s onslaught against the rule of law. And so another check is eroded away.
Agencies are being left to appointed caretakers, some outside the normal chain of succession, many unconfirmed for their current posts by the Senate. And yet, through all these misdeeds, some who are in a position to challenge Team Trump—many of them well-meaning, experienced opposition leaders—have downplayed or slow-walked the response to the administration’s crimes because they have been worried that to do otherwise might stir too much controversy or distract from other agenda items.
This is how democracies die. The rule of law is slowly strangled. The unthinkable becomes commonplace. The illegal becomes accepted—from violations of the emoluments clause to self-dealing to federal election law crimes to serial sexual abuse.
What once was black and white blurs into gray. Right and wrong, old principles, enduring values, fade from memory. Authoritarians arrive in our midst not in tanks but in bad suits and worse haircuts.
I have long thought our system was better than this—more resilient. But candidly, I'm no longer sure. I remain hopeful... hopeful that the next election cycle can redress these manifold wrongs, hopeful that the courts will do as many have done and block Trump’s worst impulses.
But it will not be easy. And the next election will be too close. Trump may be with us for six more years.
Why? Because we allowed ourselves to become inured to the unthinkable. We are dying the death of a thousand cuts. Right now, these past few weeks the president and his band of thugs have been winning. They have become unabashed in their attacks on the law. If the Mueller report comes and goes, finds wrongdoing but that translates into no price for Trump, they will only be more encouraged.
And if in the future courts rule against them but they feel empowered as they seem to be now, it is not unrealistic to imagine they might ignore judicial decisions, daring defenders of democracy to find some way to enforce them. It is not far-fetched any longer. We already must ask: What if the treasury secretary violates a law as he did last week and no one arrests him? What if the president steals from us, lines his own pockets and those of his family, and makes common cause with our enemies and he goes unpunished?
Their crimes will only grow more egregious and their ways will only grow more ingrained in our system. Their violations will in fact become the system itself. Corruption will be the norm—or more properly, greater corruption, since it was corruption that got us here in the first place.
Our only hope is recognizing the seriousness of our situation. This is not politics as usual. This is not an erosion of what was. This is a full-blown crisis, the greatest American politics has faced in half a century—perhaps much longer.
It is not a time for equivocation. It is not a time for patience. It is time for those who seek to protect the rule of law to step up to protect it or the chance may not soon again return. It is a time for our political leaders to recognize that the costs of silence and inaction far outweigh the potential divisiveness of launching the impeachment process. It is time for presidential candidates to step up as leaders of the Democratic Party and insist those who would systematically undermine our system and its checks and balances be held to account. It is time for committees on the Hill to demand respect for the law, issue and enforce subpoenas, challenge administration officials who prevaricate and dodge questions at hearings with contempt of Congress rulings. It is time to bring matters to courts and to defend the rule of law there. And it is time for regular citizens to demand action, to pressure elected officials, to take to the streets if that is necessary. We can’t let fear of the anticipated intransigence of a corrupt Senate or courts stop us from demanding the remedies our system requires and our founders saw as essential in situations just like these.
In addition, it is time for all those who would seek to divide the Democratic Party against itself at this time of national emergency to step aside. The ultimate cure for the disease of Trumpism, this debilitating affliction that threatens what is best and most dear in our system of government, is defeating Trump. We must remove him and replace his defenders in Congress, and then ensure that after 2020 steps are taken to guarantee we never again can sink to the level at which we are now struggling, a level at which a system that has taken 243 years to craft, cultivate, and evolve is in jeopardy because of the greed, corruption, ignorance, racism, and contempt for our values of the few bad men and women who lead the Republican Party, the foreign enemies that support them, and the misguided special interest groups and voters who have empowered them.