Trump’s new Big Lie is that it’s the Democrats who threaten the rule of law

Trump in Topeka.
Trump in Topeka.

There is no critique — no matter how particular to him — that Donald Trump will not fire back against his opponents with shameless gusto.

Perhaps you remember the moment during the third and final presidential debate in October 2016, when Hilary Clinton charged that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would rather have Trump win because “he’d rather have a puppet as president.”

“No puppet! No puppet!” Trump insisted, talking over Clinton. “You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!”

But even by that standard, Trump’s latest deflection is a doozy.

“The Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern,” he told hooting supporters at a political rally in Topeka on Saturday. “Republicans believe in the rule of law. Not the rule of the mob.”

So let’s take a step back.

The “rule of law” is generally accepted to mean that no one is above the law, and that the law protects all people equally.

Trump’s undermining of the rule of law is an almost daily phenomenon, from his tweets threatening to shut down the criminal investigation into his own campaign, to his using the Trump hotel in Washington as a tip jar, to abusing his pardon power, to his praise of despots, to actually being an unindicted coconspirator in the violation of campaign finance law.

A particularly compelling anecdote emerged just last week in an excerpt from Michael Lewis’s new book, The Fifth Risk. (More on that soon.)

It turns out that during the campaign, Trump was livid to find out that his transition team, which he considered unnecessary in the first place, was raising several million dollars to pay staff — money that might otherwise have gone to his campaign coffers.

When aides tried to explain that staffing a transition team is required by federal law, Lewis writes that Trump responded: “Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.”

Trump’s rise and rule are clear indications that a future in which the United States remains a stable democracy under the rule of law is no longer inevitable – a topic that has been the subject of several high-profile books including “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It,” by Yasha Mounck and “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

Long-established nonpartisan good-government groups like CREW and Common Cause have taken legal action against Trump for violating the Constitution’s Emolument clauses and campaign laws.

New groups including Protect Democracy and American Oversight have sprung up to defend against attacks of self-government and fight the culture of illegally profiting from public service that Trump has led and fostered.

This column exists because of my concerns about the growing power of the executive branch and Trump’s particular abuses of that power that go even beyond the legal and ethical strictures observed by his predecessors.

So for Trump to say Republicans believe in the rule of law – and to decry as a mob the people exercising their free expression rights  trying to defend it – is nonsensical, unless you see it as an attempt to coopt an adversarial message he fears..

And this was no slip of the tongue. Trump appeared to be reading that part off the TelePrompter, and his Twitter account called further attention to it later that night:

Along a similar vein, Trump has recently been warning that Democrats want to turn the United States into Venezuela. Venezuela, of course, is one of the few places where Trump takes issue with a one-party state violating the rights of its citizens.

“If Democrats get control, they will raise your taxes, flood your streets with criminal aliens, weaken our military, outlaw private health insurance, and replace freedom with socialism,” he said at a rally in Mississippi last week.

“In a short period of time — of course, I’ll be doing lots of vetoes, just so don’t worry too much — they will turn America into Venezuela.”

He continued this line of attack on Monday, telling reporters that “The main base of the Democrats have shifted so far left that we’ll end up being Venezuela. This country would end up being Venezuela.”

It doesn’t take an eminent psychiatrist to see that what Trump is doing is projecting. (Although I admit I am influenced by Justin Frank’s extraordinary book, “Trump on the Couch,” which explains that and so much more; stay tuned for my interview with Frank later this week.)

That’s why simply quoting what Trump says and maybe explaining it a bit further down in the story is not acceptable journalism any more.

The big story about Trump is not whatever he just said, it’s whatever his new Big Lie is. And his latest involves projecting his own party’s reality onto Democrats, calling them an angry mob threatening authoritarianism.

 

Possible ‘trainwreck’ ahead as Republican candidates wrestle with defending the worst of Trumpism

Trump embraces Minnessota Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley in Rochester on Oct. 4, 2018 (video screen capture)
Trump embraces Minnessota Republican Senate candidate Karin Housley in Rochester on Oct. 4, 2018.
Republican congressional candidates in the November election are unabashedly running on the Trump agenda and under the Trump banner. But by and large, they have not had to say how strongly they support his more outrageous conduct – the stuff that’s really aberrational.

Most of them, however, will have no choice but to address Trump’s most extreme behavior in the next few weeks as they finally come face to face with their Democratic opponents in debates.

It will be interesting to see how far they go. There are so many areas worth probing, but I’ll focus on two in particular: Trump’s disrespect for the rule of law, and his style of governing.

Trump has routinely applied political pressure to the Justice Department, including calling for the criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton. He has attacked judges whose rulings he disliked.

Most importantly: He shows every sign of replacing top Justice Department officials after the midterms, thereby ending or curtailing the criminal investigation into his own campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election.

How much of that will Republican candidates associate themselves with?

And how much if any distance will they put between themselves and Trump’s statements about minorities and white supremacists and his treatment of women? Will they join him in declaring that all but one or two of the nation’s major media outlets are “fake news”? Will they back away from his mockery of Christine Blasey Ford?

Trump himself has certainly endorsed the notion that the midterms are a referendum on him. “Get out and vote. I want you to vote pretend I’m on the ballot,” he said in Mississippi on Tuesday, a variation on a common theme.

And the candidates, almost without exception, are declaring their loyalty.

“They’re all using him in their ads,” Jennifer Duffy, who follows congressional campaigns for the Cook Poltical Report, told me. “And they are using a lot of his rhetoric. There’s lots of talk about the wall, about chain migration. They talk a lot about sanctuary cities.”

But there haven’t been a lot of debates yet — where they will be on the spot to respond to tough questions about other aspects of Trumpism while trying to win over moderate Republicans and independents.

“I think efforts to defend a lot of the President’s actions may lead to some spectacular falls,” Duffy said.

Duffy said she expects candidates in the reddest states to defend Trump unconditionally. That, she said, “could be a trainwreck.”

Politico today has an article about how Florida Republican congressional candidate Michael Waltz turned down Trump’s offer to hold a rally in his district. An “insider” told Politico the concern was that “you never know what’s going to come out of his mouth.”

But the campaign insisted Waltz is still running on the Trump agenda: “Michael Waltz proudly supports the many successes President Trump has achieved on behalf of the American people.”

What happens, though, when candidates like Waltz have to face questions from debate moderators or Democratic opponents that force them to clarify how far their support goes? Will they distance themselves or go all in?

For instance:

  • Do they think it is OK for Trump to tell the Justice Department how to conduct criminal investigations?
  • Do they support Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey,
  • Do they agree with Trump that he faces a cabal of hostile “deep state” bureaucrats and a hostile FBI?
  • Do they agree that Robert Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt”?
  • Do they share Trump’s view that the #MeToo movement is “very dangerous” and unfairly threatens  powerful men?
  • Do they defend tweets like this one?
  • What about the fact that he lies all the time? There are so many examples, but: Say, that he brags about new steel plants when there aren’t any, or that he denies that thousands of people were killed in Puerto Rico on account of Hurricane Maria?
  • Was meeting alone with Vladimir Putin a good idea?
  • How do you defend Trump’s personnel choices? Was Mike Flynn “the best people”? Was Scott Pruitt draining the swamp?
  • Did the Russians interfere in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf? Isn’t that alarming?
  • Is the president a role model for our nation’s children?

These are not questions that the Republican candidates answer unprompted. But the answers will tell us a lot about whether the post-Trump Republican Party stands for Trump’s most norm-shattering conduct. And it will also clarify the significance of the election as a referendum.

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The *crickets* problem with writing about post-Trump reforms

Cricket singing.

Two major reports from civil society groups came out Tuesday outlining bold proposals for legislation to fix some of the dangerous loopholes that Donald Trump has opened, widened or simply exposed in our increasingly fragile-feeling constitutional democracy.

But you probably didn’t hear a peep about them.

I wrote about them here and here. I think it’s fascinating stuff! But like everyone else trying to draw people’s attention to something beyond the moment’s news, I wasn’t particularly successful.

The weight and velocity of news dropping on our heads every day makes it hard to look past it. Journalists don’t have the energy to put the latest load in context, much less tease out the ramifications and consider possible solutions. For consumers of news, the outrage is so thick it sometimes threatens to turn into nihilism.

The co-chairs of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy – former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara and Republican former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman –  launched their report with an op-ed in USA Today.

They recognized the challenge:

We’re not asking Americans to look past the daily developments of our politics. But rather than careening from crisis to crisis, we want to do the hard work of repairing our democracy and restoring public faith in government. As a country, we’ve weathered crises before. But we’ve also risen to the occasion to fix what’s broken. Let’s do it again.

So it’s a long game.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Public Citizen issued Tuesday’s other report, on “Trump-Proofing the Presidency”.

“We really haven’t expected a ton of response because we understand that there are a lot of different people focused on a lot of different things right now,” Jennifer Ahearn, CREW’s policy director, told me on Wednesday.

But Ahearn said her community is operating on a long time horizon. “Major legislation takes a long time,” she said.

A lot may change after the November mid-term elections, if Democrats win either or both houses of Congress, giving them muscular oversight tools if not the ability to get legislation passed.

The goal now, Ahearn said, is “to set a baseline for what a real response to these problems would be.”

And hey, at least you’re reading this.

“I do think that there’s an appetite among some folks,” Ahearn said. “They’re tired of the horror and they want to actually think about how to fix these problems.”

In the coming days and weeks I’ll be writing more about these two sets of suggestions — and others. I’ll be interviewing people to get their reactions and thoughts. And I’ll be trying to encourage a conversation. So stay tuned.

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Bipartisan group calls for presidents to get ‘financial risk assessment’ to identify vulnerabilities to ‘foreign powers’

A group of prominent Republicans and Democrats is calling for Congress to require a “national security financial risk assessment” by top ethics and intelligence officers of the portfolios of incoming senior officials, including presidents.

A new report from the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy – co-chaired by former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara and Republican former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman –  includes a number of proposed reforms to strengthen government ethics and the rule of law in the post-Trump era.

The risk assessment proposal responds what the group called “a broad bipartisan consensus on the need to combat foreign interference in our elections and in the workings of our government.”

A review of top officials’ holdings “would provide a way to help ensure that those leaders remain accountable to the American people rather than any foreign power,” the report says.

While noting that the issue “is not unique to the current administration,” the group calls attention to reports about Trump’s global business interests, Jared Kushner’s overseas contacts, and Wilbur Ross’s Chinese and Russian business dealings.

The report concludes that “the president is a unique target for foreign adversaries. And those efforts are more likely to bear some fruit when a large number of high-ranking officials, including the president and other senior administration officials, have globe-spanning business interests.”

It recommends that Congress should pass legislation to require the following:

  • For incoming presidents, vice presidents, and senior White House staff who work on national security-related matters, Congress should require the administration of a national security financial risk assessment led by the director of the Office of Government Ethics and the director of National Intelligence. The purpose of the review would be to identify whether an official’s financial holdings present potential national security vulnerabilities and to issue divestment recommendations beyond what may be already required by other laws.
  • Officials subject to the review should be required to provide reviewers with their tax returns and ethics filings, as well as other information the reviewers request about their holdings (such as business transaction history and records of material holdings or transactions with foreign entities), with a requirement to update filings whenever there is material transaction but at least on a yearly basis. The reviewers should be required to keep any nonpublic information they receive strictly confidential.
  • The reviewers should be empowered to obtain access to all relevant government information sources and follow-up information from the filers.
  • The review should be undertaken on a confidential basis, with findings presented to the “Gang of Eight,” the bipartisan group of congressional leaders customarily briefed on classified intelligence matters as part of their oversight role.
  • The official in question should be informed of vulnerabilities the review uncovers, unless doing so would imperil counterintelligence gathering.

The group is housed at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Two other eye-catching legislative proposals would clearly articulate “what payments and benefits” are prohibited by the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses, and would “require written justifications from the president for pardons involving close associates.”

Otherwise, the group’s report – the first of several — includes proposals such as requiring presidential candidates to disclose tax returns and beef up ethics mechanisms very similar to those made by other good-government groups.

I wrote on Tuesday about a new report from  Public Citizen and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) that more broadly suggests how Congress can “Trump-proof” the presidency. The group Protect Democracy put out its roadmap in July.

“I don’t think that we are at a stage right now where it’s really critical to have everyone on exactly the same page with the exact same solutions,” Jennifer Ahearn, policy director for CREW, told me in an interview today.

She said the groups are instead hoping to begin a conversation. “Let’s get some ideas out there and let’s get people talking about them,” she said.

More on that tomorrow.

Trump doesn’t speak for most Americans – and he doesn’t speak to them, either

Trump in Mississippi.
Trump in Mississippi.

What can you say after the president of the United States publicly ridicules a woman for making a credible allegation of sexual assault, peddles lies wholesale and is cheered on – maybe even egged on — by a crowd of addled fans who roar their support no matter what he says and laugh with delight no matter how cruel he is.

Trump’s raging riffs at a political rally in Mississippi on Tuesday night for once didn’t require the media to put them in much context. Simply listening to them will leave normal people revolted.

So it’s worth pointing out the obvious: Trump wasn’t speaking to normal people.

He was, instead, speaking to an audience made up almost entirely of members of his white-nationalist tribe, self-selected to attend the latest of a series of rallies that not only serve Trump’s narcissism but offer participants an orgiastic celebration of their deepest hatreds, where they can rage among the likeminded, taunt the “fake news” media, bask in a brush with celebrity, and get caught up in the same kind of fervent hysteria normally reserved for football games, game shows, and tent revivals.

Trump exists in a bubble of adoration, from the courtiers with whom he surrounds himself at the White House to his audiences, which are either restricted to fans only or at venues where confrontation is essentially impossible.

He is hardly the first president to live within a bubble. I wrote frequently about George W. Bush’s bubble at the time. It led him to an exaggerated view of how persuasive he was. And it failed him when he tried fruitlessly to sell the privatization of Social Security to the masses, while only addressing ticketed audiences — with the tickets being distributed by his own party.

Barack Obama railed against the bubble, and even lanced it now and then, but increasingly avoided direct contact with critics, especially in public.

But Trump’s bubble puts them all to shame. For one, it’s completely intentional: Trump has no interest in speaking to all of America. He doesn’t even try. He speaks only to his tribe, to incite them. They respond with the worship he craves, and the vicious cycle continues.

One of the few people I’ve heard call attention to this problem is Hillary Clinton, who raised it on Tuesday at the Atlantic Festival.

Trump, she said “has a view of America that is incredibly constrictive. And he talks to that America.  He talks to them all the time.”

The next president may not be as intentionally divisive as Trump has been – it’s hard to imagine anyone could be. And the next president, unlike Trump, will almost assuredly at least try to act as the president of all Americans.

Nevertheless, one possible lesson to be learned here is that the presidency should come with rules – or, barring that, explicitly stated assumptions – that prevent presidents from only addressing their supporters and never encountering normal people.

This is yet another theme I want to return to over time. Please feel free to leave comments or email me at froomkin@whitehousewatch.com with your ideas and your suggestions about who I should interview.

UPDATE at 10:33 a.m. ET:

Trump tweets:

A congressional to-do list for Trump-proofing the presidency


Two organizations that have been at the forefront of thinking ahead to a post-Trump democratic restoration  – Public Citizen and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) – are out today with a thorough and serious to-do list for Congress.

The full report is called “Trump-Proofing the Presidency: A Plan for Executive Branch Ethics Reform.” The second part of the executive summary outlines the specific recommendations in four major areas:

  • Preventing Conflicts of Interest,
  • Improving Financial Disclosure of Candidates and Office Holders
  • Enhancing Rules on Gifts to Candidates and Public Officials, and
  • Strengthening the Integrity of Government

If nothing else, look those over, and start your mulling.

The new report joins and gently competes with Protect Democracy’s “Roadmap for Renewal: A Legislative Blueprint for Protecting our Democracy” issued back in July. And there are more to come.

I’ll be writing more about Trump-proofing suggestions in the next few days and weeks, but read the report in the meantime. And I want to call special attention to its authors’ explanation of why they set their sights primarily on the legislative branch:

We focus on Congress because one overarching lesson from President Trump’s assault on the ethics system is that many parts of that system have worked in the past because presidents wanted to avoid corruption risks; the system was designed to help them do that. We have now seen that it is risky to design a system that relies too heavily on this impulse from an executive. The checks and balances that are the cornerstone of our constitutional system must play a larger role in protecting Americans from corruption and its corrosive effects on their everyday lives; this is Congress’s power and its obligation.

The italics are in the original, and they appropriately accentuate what is so different about Trump, what he is teaching us about foreseen and unforeseen loopholes in our constitutional system, and how we can go about fixing them.

And the central challenge, as with so many things Trump, is to restore the system of checks and balances that, tested like never before, has failed thus far.