The People vs. Donald J. Trump

He is demonstrably unfit for office. What are we waiting for?

The presidential oath of office contains 35 words and one core promise: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Since virtually the moment Donald J. Trump took that oath two years ago, he has been violating it. He has

  • repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has
  • used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has
  • lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has
  • tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.

To shield himself from accountability for all of this — and for his unscrupulous presidential campaign — he has

  • set out to undermine the American system of checks and balances. He has
  • called for the prosecution of his political enemies and the protection of his allies. He has
  • attempted to obstruct justice. He has
  • tried to shake the public’s confidence in one democratic institution after another, including
    • the press,
    • federal law enforcement and the
    • federal judiciary.

The unrelenting chaos that Trump creates can sometimes obscure the big picture. But the big picture is simple: The United States has never had a president as demonstrably unfit for the office as Trump. And it’s becoming clear that 2019 is likely to be dominated by a single question: What are we going to do about it?

The easy answer is to wait — to allow the various investigations of Trump to run their course and ask voters to deliver a verdict in 2020. That answer has one great advantage. It would avoid the national trauma of overturning an election result. Ultimately, however, waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.

He has already shown, repeatedly, that

  • he will hurt the country in order to help himself. He will damage American interests around the world and
  • damage vital parts of our constitutional system at home.

The risks that he will cause much more harm are growing.

Some of the biggest moderating influences have recently left the administration. The

  • defense secretary who defended our alliances with NATO and South Korea is gone. So is
  • the attorney general who refused to let Trump subvert a federal investigation into himself. The administration is increasingly filled with lackeys and enablers. Trump has become freer to turn his whims into policy — like, say, shutting down the government on the advice of Fox News hosts or pulling troops from Syria on the advice of a Turkish autocrat.

The biggest risk may be that an external emergency — a war, a terrorist attack, a financial crisis, an immense natural disaster — will arise. By then, it will be too late to pretend that he is anything other than manifestly unfit to lead.

For the country’s sake, there is only one acceptable outcome, just as there was after Americans realized in 1974 that a criminal was occupying the Oval Office. The president must go.

Since the midterm election showed the political costs that Trump inflicts on Republicans, this criticism seems to be growing. They have broken with him on foreign policy (in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria) and are anxious about the government shutdown. Trump is vulnerable to any erosion in his already weak approval rating, be it from an economic downturn, more Russia revelations or simply the defection of a few key allies. When support for an unpopular leader starts to crack, it can crumble.

Before we get to the how of Trump’s removal, though, I want to spend a little more time on the why — because even talking about the ouster of an elected president should happen only under extreme circumstances. Unfortunately, the country is now so polarized that such talk instead occurs with every president. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were subjected to reckless calls for their impeachment, from members of Congress no less.

So let’s be clear. Trump’s ideology is not an impeachable offense. However much you may disagree with Trump’s tax policy — and I disagree vehemently — it is not a reason to remove him from office. Nor are his efforts to cut government health insurance or to deport undocumented immigrants. Such issues, among others, are legitimate matters of democratic struggle, to be decided by elections, legislative debates, protests and the other normal tools of democracy. These issues are not the “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the founders intended impeachment to address.

Yet the founders also did not intend for the removal of a president to be impossible. They insisted on including an impeachment clause in the Constitution because they understood that an incompetent or corrupt person was nonetheless likely to attain high office every so often. And they understood how much harm such a person could do. The country needed a way to address what Alexander Hamilton called “the abuse or violation of some public trust” and James Madison called the “incapacity, negligence or perfidy” of a president.

The negligence and perfidy of President Trump — his high crimes and misdemeanors — can be separated into four categories. This list is conservative. It does not include the possibility that his campaign coordinated strategy with Russia, which remains uncertain. It also does not include his lazy approach to the job, like his refusal to read briefing books or the many empty hours on his schedule. It instead focuses on demonstrable ways that he has broken the law or violated his constitutional oath.

Regardless of party, Trump’s predecessors took elaborate steps to separate their personal financial interests from their governing responsibilities. They released their tax returns, so that any potential conflicts would be public. They placed their assets in a blind trust, to avoid knowing how their policies might affect their own investments.

Trump has instead treated the presidency as a branding opportunity. He has continued to own and promote the Trump Organization. He has spent more than 200 days at one of his properties and billed taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If this pattern were merely petty corruption, without damage to the national interest, it might not warrant removal from office. But Trump’s focus on personal profit certainly appears to be affecting policy. Most worrisome, foreign officials and others have realized they can curry favor with the president by spending money at one of his properties.

Then, of course, there is Russia. Even before Robert Mueller, the special counsel, completes his investigation, the known facts are damning enough in at least one way. Trump lied to the American people during the 2016 campaign about business negotiations between his company and Vladimir Putin’s government. As president, Trump has taken steps — in Europe and Syria — that benefit Putin. To put it succinctly:

The president of the United States lied to the country about his commercial relationship with a hostile foreign government toward which he has a strangely accommodating policy.

Combine Trump’s actions with his tolerance for unethical cabinet officials — including ones who have made shady stock trades, accepted lavish perks or used government to promote their own companies or those of their friends — and the Trump administration is almost certainly the most corrupt in American history. It makes Warren G. Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal look like, well, a tempest in a teapot.

A Watergate grand jury famously described Richard Nixon as “an unindicted co-conspirator.” Trump now has his own indictment tag: “Individual-1.”

Federal prosecutors in New York filed papers last month alleging that Trump — identified as Individual-1 — directed a criminal plan to evade campaign finance laws. It happened during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, when he instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to pay a combined $280,000 in hush money to two women with whom Trump evidently had affairs. Trump and his campaign did not disclose these payments, as required by law. In the two years since, Trump has lied publicly about them — initially saying he did not know about the payments, only to change his story later.

It’s worth acknowledging that most campaign finance violations do not warrant removal from office. But these payments were not most campaign finance violations. They involved large, secret payoffs in the final weeks of a presidential campaign that, prosecutors said, “deceived the voting public.” The seriousness of the deception is presumably the reason that the prosecutors filed criminal charges against Cohen, rather than the more common penalty of civil fines for campaign finance violations.

What should happen to a president who won office with help from criminal behavior? The founders specifically considered this possibility during their debates at the Constitutional Convention. The most direct answer came from George Mason: A president who “practiced corruption and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance” should be subject to impeachment.

Whatever Mueller ultimately reveals about the relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump has obstructed justice to keep Mueller — and others — from getting to the truth.

Again and again, Trump has interfered with the investigation in ways that may violate the law and clearly do violate decades-old standards of presidential conduct. He

  •  pressured James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, to let up on the Russia investigation, as a political favor. When Comey refused, Trump fired him. Trump also repeatedly
  • pressured Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, to halt the investigation and ultimately forced Sessions to resign for not doing so. Trump has also
  • publicly hounded several of the government’s top experts on Russian organized crime, including Andrew McCabe and Bruce Orr.

And Trump has repeatedly lied to the American people.

  • He has claimed, outrageously, that the Justice Department tells witnesses to lie in exchange for leniency. He has
  • rejected, with no factual basis, the findings of multiple intelligence agencies about Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign. He reportedly
  • helped his son Donald Trump Jr. draft a false statement about a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer.

Obstruction of justice is certainly grounds for the removal of a president. It was the subject of the first Nixon article of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee. Among other things, that article accused him of making “false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States.”

The Constitution that Trump swore to uphold revolves around checks and balances. It depends on the idea that the president is not a monarch. He is a citizen to whom, like all other citizens, the country’s laws apply. Trump rejects this principle. He has instead tried to undermine the credibility of any independent source of power or information that does not serve his interests.

It’s much more than just the Russia investigation. He has

  • tried to delegitimize federal judges based on their ethnicity or on the president who appointed them, drawing a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts. Trump has
  •  criticized the Justice Department for indicting Republican politicians during an election year. He has
  • called for Comey, Hillary Clinton and other political opponents of his to be jailed. Trump has .
  • described journalists as “the enemy of the people” — an insult usually leveled by autocrats. He has
  • rejected basic factual findings from the
    • C.I.A., the
    • Congressional Budget Office,
    • research scientists and
    • others.
  • He has told bald lies about election fraud.

Individually, these sins may not seem to deserve removal from office. Collectively, though, they exact a terrible toll on American society. They cause people to lose the faith on which a democracy depends — faith in elections, in the justice system, in the basic notion of truth.

No other president since Nixon has engaged in behavior remotely like Trump’s. To accept it without sanction is ultimately to endorse it. Unpleasant though it is to remove a president, the costs and the risks of a continued Trump presidency are worse.

The most relevant precedent for the removal of Trump is Nixon, the only American president to be forced from office because of his conduct. And two aspects of Nixon’s departure tend to get overlooked today. One, he was never impeached. Two, most Republicans — both voters and elites — stuck by him until almost the very end. His approval rating among Republicans was still about 50 percent when, realizing in the summer of 1974 that he was doomed, he resigned.

The current political dynamics have some similarities. Whether the House of Representatives, under Democratic control, impeaches Trump is not the big question. The question is whether he loses the support of a meaningful slice of Republicans.

I know that many of Trump’s critics have given up hoping that he ever will. They assume that Republican senators will go on occasionally criticizing him without confronting him. But it is a mistake to give up. The stakes are too large — and the chances of success are too real.

Consider the following descriptions of Trump:

Every one of these descriptions comes from a Republican member of Congress or of Trump’s own administration.

They know. They know he is unfit for office. They do not need to be persuaded of the truth. They need to be persuaded to act on it.

.. Democrats won’t persuade them by impeaching Trump. Doing so would probably rally the president’s supporters. It would shift the focus from Trump’s behavior toward a group of Democratic leaders whom Republicans are never going to like. A smarter approach is a series of sober-minded hearings to highlight Trump’s misconduct.

Democrats should focus on easily understandable issues most likely to bother Trump’s supporters, like corruption.

If this approach works at all — or if Mueller’s findings shift opinion, or if a separate problem arises, like the economy — Trump’s Republican allies will find themselves in a very difficult spot. At his current approval rating of about 40 percent, Republicans were thumped in the midterms. Were his rating to fall further, a significant number of congressional Republicans would be facing long re-election odds in 2020.

Two examples are Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, senators who, not coincidentally, have shown tentative signs of breaking with Trump on the government shutdown. The recent criticism from Mitt Romney — who alternates between critical and sycophantic, depending on his own political interests — is another sign of Trump’s weakness.

For now, most Republicans worry that a full break with Trump will cause them to lose a primary, and it might. But sticking by him is no free lunch. Just ask the 27 Republican incumbents who were defeated last year and are now former members of Congress. By wide margins, suburban voters and younger voters find Trump abhorrent. The Republican Party needs to hold its own among these voters, starting in 2020.

It’s not only that Trump is unfit to be president and that Republicans know it. It also may be the case that they will soon have a political self-interest in abandoning him. If they did, the end could come swiftly. The House could then impeach Trump, knowing the Senate might act to convict. Or negotiations could begin over whether Trump deserves to trade resignation for some version of immunity.

Finally, there is the hope — naïve though it may seem — that some Republicans will choose to act on principle. There now exists a small club of former Trump administration officials who were widely respected before joining the administration and whom Trump has sullied, to greater or lesser degrees. It includes

  • Rex Tillerson,
  • Gary Cohn,
  • H.R. McMaster and
  • Jim Mattis.

Imagine if one of them gave a television interview and told the truth about Trump. Doing so would be a service to their country at a time of national need. It would be an illustration of duty.

Throughout his career, Trump has worked hard to invent his own reality, and largely succeeded. It has made him very rich and, against all odds, elected him president. But whatever happens in 2019, his false version of reality will not survive history, just as Nixon’s did not. Which side of that history do today’s Republicans want to be on?

2019: The Year of the Wolves

Can the Constitution withstand the partisans?

.. 2019, because this looks to be the year of the wolves — the year when savage and previously unimaginable things might happen.  It will be a year of
  • divided government and unprecedented partisan conflict. It will be a year in which
  • Donald Trump is isolated and unrestrained as never before.  And it will be in this atmosphere that
  • indictments will fall, provoking not just a political crisis but a constitutional one.

There are now over a dozen investigations into Trump’s various scandals. If we lived in a healthy society, the ensuing indictments would be handled in a serious way — somber congressional hearings, dispassionate court proceedings. Everybody would step back and be sobered by the fact that our very system of law is at stake.

We know the language he’ll use. It will be the anti-establishment, anti-institutional language that has been coursing through the left and right for the past few decades: The establishment is corrupt, the game is rigged, the elites are out to get you.

At that point congressional leaders will face the defining choice of their careers: Where does their ultimate loyalty lie, to the Constitution or to their party?

If their loyalty is to the Constitution, they will step back and figure out, in a bipartisan way, how to hold the sort of hearings that Congress held during the Watergate scandal — hearings that inspired trust in the system. They will step back and find men and women of integrity — the modern versions of Archibald Cox, Elliot Richardson and Judge John Sirica — who would work to restore decency amid the moral rot.

On the other hand, if they put party above nation, they will see this crisis as just another episode in our long-running political circus. They’ll fall back in partisan lines. They’ll hurl abuse. Their primary concern will be: How can this help me in 2020?

If that happens, then the roughly 40 percent of Americans who support Trump will see serious evidence that he committed felonies, but they won’t care! They’ll conclude that this is not about law or integrity. It’s just a political show trial. They’ll see there is no higher authority that all Americans are accountable to. It’s just power and popularity straight through.

If that happens, we’ll have to face the fact that our Constitution and system of law were not strong enough to withstand the partisan furies that now define our politics. We’ll have to face the fact that America has become another fragile state — a kakistocracy, where laws are passed and broken without consequence, where good people lay low and where wolves are left free to prey on the weak.

‘The Enemy of the People’

Criticism of the media by a president is not necessarily a bad thing

Depending on your perspective, one of President Trump’s real talents, or one of his most baleful traits, is his knack for the zinger label, pinned on a political or institutional foe. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “The Swamp” — the labels often stick . . . and sting.

But who exactly is “the enemy of the people”? Trump maintains that he is not referring to the entire press, only to “fake news” coverage by mainstream-media outlets. Is such line-drawing appropriate? Even if the public at large may validly make such distinctions, should they be drawn by a president of the United States, or does that specter imperil constitutional free-press protections?

.. Before Trump zapped our politics with his lightning rod, it was a commonplace in conservative circles to complain about that most pernicious practice of the political press: the pretense of objectivity. No, we did not begrudge the New York Times and Washington Post their editorial pages, nor resent opinion pieces and programs clearly advertised as such. Our objection was to patently biased news coverage that was presented as if it were dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting. The bias is seen and unseen, but pervasive. It is found in the reporting itself. It is intimated in the description of sources (e.g., conservatives always described as “conservative”; left-wing sources — the ACLU, SPLC, CAIR, etc. — described as civil-rights groups with no partisan agenda). Most important, it is concealed in editorial decisions about what gets covered and what does not, camouflaged by the thread that gets emphasis and the “lede” that gets buried.

.. By reporting this way, the media inculcate in the public the assumption that there is no other side of the story. The Left’s Weltanschauung is not presented merely as a worldview; it is portrayed as objective, inarguable fact, and any other way of looking at things is subversive, cynical, or psychotic.
.. Nietzsche was right that we are hard-wired to exaggerate when speaking about what ails us. That goes double for political discourse. To limn one’s political opposition as “the enemy” is common. It has been throughout history, and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. No more thought goes into it than into a sportscaster’s use of “warrior” to laud some running back who just gained 100 grueling yards. It’s just rhetoric. When we resort to it, we’re not intentionally trivializing the danger posed by actual enemies or diminishing the courage of real warriors.
.. Still, the older one gets, the easier it is to see why referring to partisan opponents as “enemies” is unhelpful. Over time, political coalitions shift. Notions about friend and foe change. To coexist and govern, we have to compromise, and casual condemnations of our opposite number as “the enemy” make compromise harder. When I was a prosecutor, I had genial relations with most of my defense-lawyer adversaries. We fought hard but saw that letting it get too sharp-elbowed, too personal, could rupture the working relationships needed to get through the case . . . and the next one. The stakes were high, but it was markedly less polarized than politics has become.
.. This president runs hot and cold in a nanosecond, so it’s probably a fool’s errand to analyze his rhetoric too closely —
  • one minute you’re “rocket man,” the barbaric dictator;
  • the next minute, you’re the “funny guy” with the “great personality” who really “loves his people,

not that I’m surprised by that.”

.. Topsy-turvy, to be sure, but Trump’s mercurial outbursts, his cavalier resort to words like “enemy” — words other presidents have been circumspect about — does not mean he perceives no difference between Jim Acosta and Osama bin Laden.

So . . . what does the president mean by “the enemy of the people”? More specifically, to whom is he referring? Well, there was an interesting exchange about that last weekend, during Trump’s sit-down interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace.

.. In the discussion, Trump several times tried to clarify that when he refers to “the enemy of the people,” he is not speaking of all journalists; he is referring to a large subset of journalists that he calls “the Fake News.” According to the president, these are the mainstream-media outlets that align with Democrats and treat him as a partisan opponent, resulting in dishonest and inaccurate coverage of his presidency.

.. Now, you can agree or disagree with him on that, but he is entitled to his opinion. To my mind, there has been plenty of dishonest and inaccurate coverage of Trump. To be sure, there has also been plenty of honest and accurate coverage of the president saying things that are dishonest or inaccurate. Nevertheless, the sheer contempt in which this president is held by journalists is manifest. Even for those of us old enough to remember the coverage of Nixon and Reagan (as well as the Bushes), it is something to behold.

.. For one thing, the effort to delegitimize Trump’s presidency by claiming that he “colluded” in the Kremlin’s 2016 election-meddling has been tireless, and apparently effective. The effort was fueled by selective intelligence leaks and the modern media melding of opinion journalism with news reporting. After over two years of digging, investigators have lodged no collusion allegation; to the contrary, the indictments that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed tend to undermine any theory of a Trump–Russia criminal conspiracy. Yet the president remains under suspicion and the media routinely insinuate that Mueller’s mere issuance of indictments validates that suspicion — even though the indictments have nothing to do with Trump.

..  As Power Line’s John Hinderaker relates, recent polling by The Economist and YouGov found that nearly half of American women (48 percent) and fully two-thirds of Democrats (67 percent) actually believe that “Russia tampered with the vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President” — notwithstanding that investigators have never even suspected Russia of tampering with vote tallies, for Trump or anyone else. (The investigation involves allegations that Russia hacked Democratic email accounts.)

.. As Wallace framed the matter, there is only one press, all the journalists are part of it, and no distinctions may be drawn. “We are all together . . . we are in solidarity, sir,” he told the president, adding that, for these purposes, there is no difference between CNN, the New York Times, and Fox. Even though Wallace acknowledged that some coverage of Trump is “biased,” he maintained that the press is a monolith; therefore, the argument went, to condemn a subset of journalists is to condemn the whole of journalism.

.. While he did not air them fully (it was, after all, an interview of the president), I imagine he worries that the “enemy of the people” formulation is a case of Trump wrongly conflating opposition to Trump with opposition to America. Perhaps the issue is not so much the drawing of distinctions between worthy and unworthy journalism, but rather that the president of the United States should not be doing the drawing. The president, clearly, is not just anyone. He is the highest official of a government that is constitutionally obligated to respect freedom of the press, to refrain from threatening it. If people hear an analyst decrying media bias, that is one thing; if they hear the president decrying “the media,” they may not grasp that he intends to rebuke only a subset of the media. They may not be so sure that the rebuke is good-faith criticism, as opposed to despotic intimidation. They may conclude that free-press principles are imperil

.. The fact that Trump’s bombast makes many of us wince — “enemy” — is a style point. If you don’t like it, do a better job running against him next time. After all, when vivid language is directed at conservatives, rather than at themselves, journalists are quick to tell us that life and progress in a free society require thick-skinned toleration of objectionable language and transgressive gestures. What’s sauce for the goose . . .

.. Before President Trump started using the phrase “the enemy of the people,” fair-minded people acknowledged media bias. Conservatives complained bitterly about it. These were not attacks on journalism; they were cris de coeur for real journalism. The president’s “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” epithets are best understood as a reiteration of these longstanding complaints in the barbed Trump style. This is no small thing. While the complaints are getting more of an airing than they have in the past, the president’s manner is off-putting to many people who were once sympathetic to the point he is making.

.. The mainstream press, meanwhile, is becoming more unabashedly hostile. At least that means there is more transparency, but is that a good thing? I don’t know. It would be good to be rid of the pretense of objectivity. But there are many reporters who do not pretend to be objective; they actually are objective, even if they have strong political views, even if they dislike the president for reasons of substance or style. We need those pros. We need to appreciate what they do, not reject real news because it may be news we don’t want to hear.

.. I do not lose much sleep over a president’s lashing out at what he perceives as, and what often truly is, biased reporting. This is not Turkey; a president would be impeached before a journalist spends an hour in prison for unflattering coverage. And I don’t worry much about whether criticism of a readily identifiable portion of the media harms the entire media as an institution. If journalists are worried about that, they should police their profession better. Jim Acosta hurts journalism more than he hurts Trump, and if the president is really as awful as many journalists contend, then simply asking his administration straightforward questions, rather than posing as “The Resistance,” should expose that.

This will never be normal

One of the current complaints of the Trump right concerns the treatment given to Alex Jones by Facebook, which has temporarily banned the Internet radio host for videos that violated “community standards.” According to Lou Dobbs of the Fox Business Network, “freedom of speech [is] under attack.” Fox News television personality Tucker Carlson has also come to Jones’s defense, saying sarcastically, “I know we’re supposed to think Alex Jones is way more radical than, like, Bill Maher.”

.. Well, yes, that is precisely what we should think. At various points, Jones has promoted the belief that

  • 9/11 was an “inside job,” that
  • Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizzeria, that
  • NASA had built a child slave colony on Mars in order to harvest blood and bone marrow, that
  • the Oklahoma City bombing,
  • the Boston Marathon bombing and the
  • Sandy Hook school shooting were government “false flag” operations, that
  • some shooting survivors were “crisis actors,” that
  • “globalists” are intent on committing genocide and that
  • Democrats are on the verge of launching a second civil war.

.. President Trump has made a great many unpleasant things unavoidable. He has appeared on Jones’s Infowars program and assured Jones that his “reputation is amazing.” The White House briefly gave Infowars a press credential. And Donald Trump Jr. has retweeted Infowars stories.

.. It represents not only a certain approach to political strategy but also a certain approach to morality, pressed to its logical extreme. Trump is not a dogmatist; he is an egotist. He judges others not by their convictions, or even by their hold on reality, but by their fidelity to his person. It is a form of identity politics in which all that counts is one man’s identity. So Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), being faithless to Trump, is an enemy. And the revealer of child slavery on Mars is a friend.

.. Remember when a white man in Boston, spouting Trump slogans, beat up a homeless man outside a subway station? Trump responded: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

.. Remember when a Trump supporter punched an African American man at a rally? Trump said that his follower “obviously loves his country.”

.. Remember when the alt-right provoked violence in Charlottesville? Trump pronounced some white nationalists to be “very fine people.”

.. The president has a nearly impossible time criticizing his fans, even when they are guilty of hate crimes and violence. In Trump’s own private creed, they are absolved of guilt by their loyalty to him.

.. This commitment

  • transforms their cruelty into the proof of passion; their
  • prejudice into an expression of patriotism; their
  • lawlessness into the embrace of his higher order. ‘

Just ask former Phoenix area

  • sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned after his abuse of Hispanic migrants. Or
  • Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, pardoned after defying the federal government.

All were justified and sanctified by their devotion to Trump.

.. Any political movement is defined not just by what it aspires to, but also by whom it excludes. And the alt-right, the Alex Jones right, the white nationalist right know that they are fully included in Trump’s definition of his movement.

.. They know that their loyalty to him has been rewarded with a legitimacy they have craved for decades. And they are full, enthusiastic partners in the Trump project — to delegitimize any source of authority and information but his own.

  • .. Genuine populists are discredited by consorting with people who accuse elites of arming for mass murder.
  • The religious right is caught in bed with a diseased, seeping moral relativism. And
  • Fox anchors come to the defense of a man who verbally defiles the graves of murdered children.

 

The Likeliest Explanation for Trump’s Helsinki Fiasco

Character, not collusion, best explains the president’s bizarre deference to Vladimir Putin.

Last week, I wrote that the best way to think about a Trump Doctrine is as nothing more than Trumpism on the international stage. By Trumpism, I do not mean a coherent ideological program, but a psychological phenomenon, or simply the manifestation of his character.

.. During a joint news appearance with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump demonstrated that, when put to the test, he cannot see any issue through a prism other than his grievances and ego.

.. Trump made it clear that he can only understand the investigation into Russian interference as an attempt to rob him of credit for his electoral victory, and thus to delegitimize his presidency.’
.. For most people with a grasp of the facts — supporters and critics alike — the question of Russian interference and the question of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign are separate. Russia did interfere in the election, full stop. Whether there was collusion is still an open question, even if many Trump supporters have made up their minds about it. Whether Russian interference, or collusion, got Trump over the finish line is ultimately unknowable, though I think it’s very unlikely.
.. Among the self-styled “resistance,” the answer takes several sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory forms.
  1. One theory is that the Russians have “kompromat” — that is, embarrassing or incriminating intelligence on Trump. Another is that
  2. he is a willing asset of the Russians — “Agent Orange” — with whom he colluded to win the presidency.

.. their real shortcoming is that they are less plausible than the Aesopian explanation: This is who Trump is. Even if Russia hadn’t meddled in the election at all, Trump would still admire Putin because Trump admires men like Putin — which is why he’s praised numerous other dictators and strongmen.

.. The president’s steadfast commitment to a number of policies —

  • animosity toward NATO,
  • infatuation with protectionism,
  • an Obama-esque obsession with eliminating nuclear weapons, and
  • his determination that a “good relationship” with Russia should be a policy goal rather than a means to one

— may have some ideological underpinning. (These policies all seem to be rooted in intellectual fads of the 1980s.)

 

One Thing Donald Trump Would Like Is Freedom From the Press

More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.

Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.

.. He has described news organizations as “the enemy of the American people.” He has routinely called reporters“scum,” “slime,” “dishonest” and “disgusting.”

.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media

extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rushertalk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.

Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.

.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.

.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics

..  in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.

.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.

.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it

leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including

  • the judiciary,
  • the intelligence community,
  • immigrants, and
  • members of certain races or religions.

.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.

.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.

.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”

.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”

Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:

If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.

.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.

For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.

.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”

that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.

Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest

that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.

The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.

.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.

.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.

.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls

to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.

 

‘Delegitimizing’ Mueller? Don’t Blame the Nunes Memo

The FBI and Justice Department hyped Trump–Russia collusion. Rod Rosenstein can right that wrong.

.. The most bitter dispute over the Nunes memo involves Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. This might seem odd since the memo, published last week by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Devin Nunes (R. Calif.), does not address the Mueller investigation. Rather, it homes in on potential abuses of foreign-intelligence-collection authorities by Obama-era Justice Department and FBI officials, said to have occurred many months before Mueller was appointed.

.. Nevertheless, it is simply a fact that many ardent supporters of President Trump claim the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation is destroyed by revelations in the Nunes memo — particularly, the improper use of the unverified Steele dossier to obtain a FISA-court warrant to spy on Carter Page, who had been a Trump campaign adviser. The idea is that without the Steele dossier, there would be no Trump-Russia narrative, and thus no collusion investigation — which is how Trump supporters perceive the Mueller probe.

.. Trump critics see the Mueller investigation as the path to impeachment, and thus anathematize Chairman Nunes as a Trumpist hack bent on razing the FBI

.. The Mueller investigation is supposed to be a counterintelligence probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Getting to the bottom of Russia’s perfidy is a goal every American should support

.. Yet the FBI and the Justice Department went out of their way, and outside their own policy, to frame the Russia investigation within an innuendo-laden narrative of Trump collusion. They did so by selectively broadcasting investigative information that is supposed to be confidential and non-public.

.. Thus the bleating about how Republican worries over FISA abuse are just a smokescreen for discrediting Mueller’s investigation. But they did the same thing: exploiting concerns about Russian interference in our election process as camouflage for a campaign to delegitimize Trump’s presidency.

.. From a law-enforcement perspective, the government should speak publicly about an investigation only in court, when it formally charges a person with a crime, and when that person thus enjoys all the due-process protections our system affords. Prior to that point, confirming an investigation would stigmatize a suspect who has not been charged and is presumed innocent; while denying that an investigation is ongoing would create a need to confirm or deny in every case.

.. From a counterintelligence perspective, the wisdom of the no-comment policy is even more obvious. Intelligence work is classified. The point is not to prosecute crimes; it is to derive information about foreign governments and actors who threaten American interests.

.. The FBI and Justice Department should always resist acknowledging that an investigation is under way. Even when the fact of an investigation is unavoidably public (because, for example, people find out a search warrant has been executed, or someone has been subpoenaed to the grand jury), the no-comment rule enables prosecutors and investigators to decline to answer questions about their work.

.. The real problem with Director Comey’s announcement involves what he said next. The counterintelligence investigation, he elaborated,

includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed. [Emphases added.]

None of this should have been said.

.. There was still no reason to broadcast these suspicions. The public announcement created the perception that the bureau strongly suspected that a nefarious, overarching Trump–Russia conspiracy was afoot.

.. This would have been indefensible under any circumstances, but the lapse is especially glaring given that Director Comey was privately telling President Trump and congressional leaders that Trump himself was not a suspect. Why gratuitously say something that could only lead people to believe he was?

.. Moreover, there was no reason for Comey to publicly mention “an assessment of whether any crimes were committed” in the context of a counterintelligence, rather than criminal, investigation.

.. The stunning announcement conflated two things it has always been important to keep discrete:

  1. the counterintelligence investigation of the threat Russia, with its advanced cyber capabilities and anti-American intentions, clearly poses to our electoral system; and
  2. the dubious Trump–Russia collusion angle. For much of the public, they became one and the same.

.. Ordinarily, prosecutors are not assigned to intelligence cases because intelligence work is not prosecution — it is the work of trained analysts assessing threats, not lawyers proving statutory offenses

.. the deputy attorney general did not undertake his own description; he instead adopted as his own Comey’s description of the probe in the March 20 House testimony — i.e., the portrayal of the probe that emphasized Trump–Russia collusion.

.. Only a week before appointing Mueller, Rosenstein had authored a memorandum arguing that Comey should be removed as FBI director for failing to adhere to traditional Justice Department policies and norms. In particular, Rosenstein scolded Comey for publicly revealing derogatory investigative information about people who have not been formally charged with crimes.

.. Comey’s defensive claims that he had tried merely “to say what is true,” and to protect the FBI from charges that it had “concealed” from the public important information about a politically fraught investigation.

.. there is no basis in the regulations for the assignment of a special counsel to a counterintelligence investigation.

.. his task was to describe the factual basis for a criminal probe and the crimes that he was giving Mueller jurisdiction to investigate. The Comey testimony that he adopted had done neither of these things — it floated speculation

.. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein could do a great service by amending his special-counsel appointment to make clear that

(a) Mueller is to investigate Russia’s actions to interfere in our election;

(b) the previous statements about possible Trump campaign “coordination” with the Russian government were unnecessary and are withdrawn; and

(c) President Trump is not personally suspected of wrongdoing

.. Rosenstein should relieve the president of the burden of this suspicion if that can be done honestly.

.. If Rosenstein did that, Mueller’s investigation would have the public support it should have