Accelerating Corruption and Autocracy

Ever since he came down the escalator pledging to protect us from Mexican rapists, Donald Trump has shown corrupt and autocratic tendencies. Before long, he was leading chants about locking up his political opponents, welcoming Russian help in his campaign, encouraging his supporters to be violent, profiting off of campaign events, and saying that he would only accept the election results “if I win“.

Since taking office, he has funneled public money into his private businesses, continued building his wall without a Congressional appropriation, refused all demands for financial transparency and Congressional oversight, obstructed the Mueller investigation, assembled the most corrupt cabinet since Nixon, lied many times per day, and repeatedly expressed his envy of dictatorial regimes like North Korea and China.

But the authoritarian drift has definitely accelerated in the three weeks since every Senate Republican but Mitt Romney voted to let Donald Trump remain in office, despite proven abuses of power. As Atlantic’s Adam Serwer puts it, Trump’s acquittal marked “the end of the Trump administration, and the first day of the would-be Trump Regime.” Think about what we’ve seen since the Senate’s abdication of its constitutional role in controlling would-be autocrats.

A purge of “disloyal” officials. The disloyalty here is not to the United States, but to the person of Donald Trump.

Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, for example, has behaved exactly as an officer should: When something about Trump’s Ukraine call seemed odd to him, he reported his concerns up the chain of command. When Congress subpoenaed him, he appeared and testified honestly. For this, he was not just fired, but escorted out of the White House like a criminal. His twin brother, who played no role in the impeachment hearings, was also fired just out of vindictiveness. (Fortunately, the Army has refused Trump’s suggestion that Lt. Col. Vindman be investigated and disciplined.)

Other people who are now gone: Ambassador Bill Taylor, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, and Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates. They join everyone in the FBI who had any connection to the original Russia investigation, most of whom were purged long ago: James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Bruce Ohr, and Lisa Page, as well as the Justice Department leadership that refused Trump’s pressure to shut the investigation down: Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein.

The purge is expected to continue throughout the administration. (See below for purges at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Interference in the Stone trial. It’s important to understand what Roger Stone (along with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn) represents: the last loose ends in the obstruction of the Mueller investigation. (One of the obstruction-of-justice claims explored in Part II of the Mueller Report was that Trump engaged in witness-tampering with Manafort, including hinting at a pardon.)

Stone was the Trump campaign’s link to WikiLeaks and from there to the Russians who hacked Democratic computers. Manafort was the campaign’s link to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and from there to Russian intelligence. Flynn’s relationship with Russian Ambassador Segei Kislyak (in particular why Flynn and Jared Kushner approached him about creating a “back channel” to Russia) has never been explained. These men are not just Trump’s “friends”, they’re his accomplices.

In the Stone case, Trump (through Bill Barr) reversed the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation (causing all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case rather than participate in political corruption of the processes of justice), attacked the judge, and attacked a juror. He didn’t stop Judge Amy Berman from sentencing Stone to 40 months in prison, but he did set up his justification for a post-election pardon, along with pardons of Flynn and Manafort. This would send a clear message to anyone else who could testify against Trump: Keep your mouth shut and the boss will take care of you.

Notice what has been missing from Trump’s defense of Stone: acknowledgment of the fact that he’s guilty. Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump, and he threatened a witness who could expose that lie. A jury of his peers unanimously found that Stone’s guilt had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pardons for money. Corrupt Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich got the attention, but the most obviously corrupt of Tuesday’s pardons was tax evader Paul Pogue, whose family has contributed over $200K to the Trump Victory Fund. Criminal financier Michael Milken was pardoned after a request from billionaire Nelson Peltz, a Milken business associate who had just hosted a Trump fundraiser that netted the campaign $10 million.

Pardons to maintain a corrupt network. Jeffrey Toobin pointed out the authoritarian flavor of the other Tuesday pardons:

Authoritarianism is usually associated with a punitive spirit—a leader who prosecutes and incarcerates his enemies. But there is another side to this leadership style. Authoritarians also dispense largesse, but they do it by their own whims, rather than pursuant to any system or legal rule. The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source. …

In this era of mass incarceration, many people deserve pardons and commutations, but this is not the way to go about it. All Trump has done is to prove that he can reward his friends and his friends’ friends.

Trump’s pardons did not percolate up through the Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney. They all had some personal connection to Trump or his circle of friends and donors. Blagojevich, for example, was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice”, and his wife pleaded for his pardon on Fox News shows Trump is known to watch. (It’s worth noting that there is no doubt about Blagojevich’s guilt. We have the tapes.) Bernard Kerik was a crony of Rudy Giuliani.

All the beneficiaries of Trump’s mercy were convicted of the kinds of white-collar crimes Trump’s people might commit themselves. That was the point, Sarah Chayes (who covered Afghanistan for more than a decade) explained in “This Is How Kleptocracies Work“:

In return for this torrent of cash and favors and subservience, those at the top of kleptocratic networks owe something precious downwards. They owe their subordinates impunity from legal repercussions. That is the other half of the bargain, without which the whole system collapses.

That’s why moves like Trump’s have to be advertised. … Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that—indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running. The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.

Threats to the rule of law. The Justice Department had retained some measure of independence until Bill Barr became attorney general. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, shared Trump’s policy goals, but respected internal procedures for maintaining the rule of law. For example, he recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his own connection to the Trump campaign — a move which angered Trump and for which Sessions was never forgiven.

But Barr has made a number of moves in the Justice Department to shield Trump from investigation and intimidate his enemies. The best summary I’ve found is by Marcy Wheeler:

  • The Stormy Daniels hush-money investigation sent Michael Cohen to prison, but all the follow-up evaporated after Barr took over at DoJ. Cohen claimed he worked under Trump’s instructions, and that the Trump Organization reimbursed his illegal campaign contribution. But those leads have been dropped.
  • SDNY seems to be slow-walking its investigation into Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine shennanigans, now that a new US attorney has been appointed. The head of the neighboring Eastern District of New York has been put in charge of Ukraine-related investigations that SDNY had been pursuing.
  • A new US attorney in D.C. has led to a “review” of investigations there, including cases involving Michael Flynn and Erik Prince.
  • Barr assigned Connecticut US attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Trump/Russia investigation. Anyone tempted to investigate further Trump wrongdoing now knows that they risk becoming targets themselves.
  • Barr tried to stop the Ukraine whistleblower’s account from reaching Congress, and did not recuse himself even though he is mentioned in the complaint.

Tightening control of the intelligence services. Like the Justice Department, the intelligence services maintained their independence when Dan Coates was Director of National Intelligence, and the subsequent acting heads had failed to bring them under control.

As a result, occasionally conclusions unfavorable to Trump have made it to Congress or the American public: Russia did help elect Trump in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing. ISIS is not defeated. Trump may not like to hear such facts, or to allow the American public to know them, but the whole point of having intelligence services is to correct the leadership’s misperceptions.

The most recent example was a February 13 briefing to House leaders of both parties, in which Shelby Pierson, an aide to then-acting DNI Joseph Maguire, reported that Russia was repeating its 2016 interference in the 2020 election process, again for the purpose of electing Trump.

You might expect an American president to react to such news by giving Vladimir Putin a stern warning to back off — as Bernie Sanders did when told that the Russians might be working to help him win the Democratic nomination. But no: Trump welcomed Russian help in 2016, sought to extort Ukrainian help with the 2020 election, and seems to welcome further Russian help now.

The intelligence report did make him angry, but at the intelligence services. He dismissed Maguire and replaced him with Richard Grenell, who has no intelligence background whatsoever. In a Washington Post column, retired Admiral William McRaven lamented Maguire’s fate:

in this administration, good men and women don’t last long.

In a different article, the WaPo quotes a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center:

Nothing in Grenell’s background suggests that he has the skill set or the experience to be an effective leader of the intelligence community. … His chief attribute seems to be that President Trump views him as unfailingly loyal.

As Ambassador to Germany (a position he still holds), Grenell was noted for his identification with right-wing parties like Alternative for Germany. (US ambassadors typically avoid such partisan interference in the politics of our NATO allies.) The German news magazine Der Spiegel couldn’t get an interview with Grenell, so it interviewed more than 30 sources including “numerous American and German diplomats, cabinet members, lawmakers, high-ranking officials, lobbyists and think tank experts.”

Almost all of these sources paint an unflattering portrait of the ambassador, one remarkably similar to Donald Trump, the man who sent him to Berlin. A majority of them describe Grenell as a vain, narcissistic person who dishes out aggressively, but can barely handle criticism. … They also say Grenell knows little about Germany and Europe, that he ignores most of the dossiers his colleagues at the embassy write for him, and that his knowledge of the subject matter is superficial.

Oh, by the way, Grenell used to work for a corrupt Moldavian oligarch, but didn’t register as a foreign agent. Under any previous administration, he wouldn’t be able to get a security clearance.

Grenell in turn has ousted the #2 intelligence official, Andrew Hallman, replacing him with Devin Nunes staffer Kashyap Patel, who is known for promoting pro-Trump conspiracy theories. More personnel changes are expected.

The NYT reports that Grenell has “requested the intelligence behind the classified briefing last week before the House Intelligence Committee where officials told lawmakers that Russia was interfering in November’s presidential election and that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia favored President Trump’s re-election”.

This move recalls how Vice President Cheney abused intelligence during the Bush administration: By “stovepiping” raw intelligence to his own office rather than letting it pass through the analytic process, Cheney was able to manipulate conclusions that favored the policies he preferred, most notably the invasion of Iraq.

Summing up. If you don’t follow US government closely, you may not see the problem. After all, the President is in charge. Why shouldn’t the people under him do what he wants? Isn’t that how it always works?

It isn’t, and there are good reasons why it doesn’t. One problem — you might fairly say it was THE problem — the Founders were trying to solve when they wrote the Constitution was how to control executive power. Unfettered executive power quickly becomes dictatorship, and the rights of the People are then only as safe as the Dictator allows them to be.

For that reason, power was divided among the three branches of government, so that Congress and the Courts would be able to hold the President in check. Congress got the power of the purse and the power of oversight, both of which are now in jeopardy.

Subsequent to the Founding, executive power has also been controlled through the professionalization of the various departments, each of which balances political control by the President with its own inherent mission. So the Justice Department takes its policy from the President, but pursues the departmental mission of justice. The intelligence services try to find truth, the EPA protects the environment, the CDC defends public health, the military safeguards our country and its allies, the Federal Reserve balances economic growth against the threat of inflation, and so on. For the most part, presidents have known when to keep their hands off.

Until Trump. More and more, Trump makes everything political. There is no truth other than the story Trump wants to tell. There is no mission other than what Trump wants done.

Students of authoritarianism have been warning us about his dangerous tendencies since he first began campaigning. But, as Rachel Maddow noted Friday night, we are well past the time for warnings. “The dark days are not ‘coming’,” she said. “The dark days are here.”

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Comments

  • Robert C. Wortman  On February 24, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Jeffrey Toobin did not testify on behalf of Trump before Congress! Get your facts straight!

  • Zeroth of Rationalia  On February 24, 2020 at 12:47 pm

    You’re mixing up Jeffrey Toobin with Jonathan Turley

  • Lois and Dave Strand  On February 24, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    One correction:   Jeffrey Toobin did not testify at Trump’s impeachment. You are thinking of Jonathan Turley.

  • Anonymous  On February 25, 2020 at 2:19 pm

    Great article Doug. I read your blog religiously, upload them to Reddit, and occasionally post on on my reasonandmeaning.com blog. Thanks for all your carefully and conscientiously crafted posts.

    • Anonymous  On February 25, 2020 at 2:40 pm

      Doug: May I have your permission to quote from and/or reprint part of this essay on my blog? reasonandmeaning.com

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