Trump and the Threat to Democracy

The following is a policy blog post by Professor Michael Klarman. He is the Kirkland & Ellis Professor at Harvard Law School, where he teaches Constitutional Law and Constitutional History.

The topic of this article is not politics or policy but rather democracy. Regardless of what one thinks of building walls at the border with Mexico, repealing Obamacare, or withdrawing the United States from the Paris accords on global climate change, one would think that Americans could agree on the importance of respecting certain basic norms of democracy. The evidence I cite in this article suggests that Trump is an existential threat to those norms. Yet he continues to enjoy strong backing from a little more than 40 percent of the American public and from 85 to 90 percent of the Republican Party. How can this be?

Here are ten basic democratic norms that Trump fails to comply with or outright repudiates: (1) respect for an independent judiciary, (2) support for a free and independent press, (3) more generally, the importance of independent actors within government, as opposed to actors who simply owe loyalty to the president; (4) a commitment to the peaceful resolution of political disputes rather than encouraging violence; (5) respect for the legitimacy of elections; (6) not using the legal system to attack political opponents; (7) not expressing admiration for foreign autocrats; (8) preserving transparency within government; (9) the maintenance of a sharp separation between the private interests of public servants and the public good; (10) at least a minimal commitment to truth telling. The remainder of this article elaborates upon Trump’s transgressions against these foundational norms of democracy.

First, Trump has repeatedly launched verbal assaults upon federal judges, thus challenging the independence of the federal judiciary. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump referred to federal District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who has lived all sixty-six years of his life in the United States and is a legitimate American hero, as a “Mexican” and a “disgrace,” because Curiel had issued adverse procedural rulings in a lawsuit against the fraudulent Trump University. When another federal district court judge invalidated the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban in late 2017, the president referred to him as a “so-called judge.” After a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit expressed skepticism about the ban during oral argument in an appeal of that case, Trump referred to the judges as “a disgrace.”

In November 2018, the president complained of “Obama judges” in the Ninth Circuit, whom he labeled a “disgrace,” after a federal district judge in California enjoined the administration’s new policy of rejecting asylum claims filed by refugees entering the United States somewhere other than a port of entry—a policy that violated the plain language of a federal statute. Trump’s attack on “Obama judges” earned him a rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts, who denied there was such a thing as “Obama judges or Trump judges,” defended judicial independence, and celebrated the fact that “[w]hat we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Second, with regard to the importance of a free and independent press, one of the president’s favorite pastimes in office has been attacking critical newspapers and other media outlets. From well before his days in the White House, Trump has advocated “opening up” our libel laws, so as to permit defamation suits on a lesser standard than the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution requires. Trump calls any reporting he disagrees with “fake news.”  Beginning soon after his inauguration, he began regularly referring to critical news media such as the New York Times as the “enemy of the people”—a term that, historically, would have been  understood as a call for their extermination.

Trump intimidates critical reporters by tweeting about them, calling for them to be fired, pointing them out at rallies, and inciting crowds to threaten violence against them. At one campaign rally in 2016, the Secret Service had to escort NBC reporter Katy Tur to her car after Trump incited a crowd against her. In October 2017, the president threatened to have NBC’s broadcast license removed—apparently ignorant of the fact that NBC does not actually have or need a broadcast license—because it had filed a “fake news” report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a “fucking moron,” a statement that Tillerson declined to repudiate on more than one occasion.

While Trump is unlikely any time soon to be able to have New York Times reporters thrown in jail, he has increasingly resorted to other means to clamp down on critical commentary that may prove more successful because they are less transparent. The Trump Justice Department sought to block—apparently on orders from the president—the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner, unless CNN, the president’s favorite media punching bag, was sold off first. Because the Justice Department rarely resists vertical mergers such as this one, the chances that this objection was politically motivated seem high.

Trump’s verbal assaults on Jeff Bezos and the company he founded, Amazon, over the past couple of years have been truly extraordinary. The president has lied about whether Amazon collects state and local taxes and whether it is paying the United States Postal Service less than it should for delivering its packages. Trump’s hostility towards Amazon is almost surely attributable in dominant part to the fact that Bezos owns the Washington Post, whose investigative reporting and editorializing regularly highlight the threat Trump poses to democracy. The president has personally intervened with the Postmaster General on more than one occasion to demand that the shipping rate Amazon pays the postal service for delivery of its packages be doubled. (The president has managed to keep these meetings off his public calendar, so we know about them only through the efforts of investigative reporters.)  Recently, Amazon sued the Trump administration, credibly alleging that it was denied a $10 billion Pentagon contract for cloud computing services because of the president’s animus towards Bezos and the Washington Post.

Trump’s behavior toward Amazon poses an historically unprecedented threat to freedom of the press by an American president. Amazon stock has declined tens of billions of dollars, apparently in direct response to Trump’s attacks. Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, so he can absorb the president’s barbs without wilting. But imagine the incentive effects on other prospective critics of the administration.

Private vigilantism, inspired and often encouraged by Trump, may pose an even great threat to freedom of speech and of the press. After a Fox News commentator criticized Trump’s despicable response to the violence incited by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017—“very fine people on both sides”—she received hundreds of hostile emails calling for her to be fired and issuing death threats. A labor union leader at the Carrier air conditioner plant in Indiana, who exposed the president’s lies about how many jobs would ostensibly be saved by Trump’s personal intervention to pressure the company not to relocate its plant to Mexico, was denounced by name by the president on twitter, and then received death threats. The videographer of the killing of Heather Heyer on the downtown mall in Charlottesville in the aftermath of the white-supremacist rally there, received death threats, as did Heyer’s mother, who refused to meet with Trump to personally accept his condolences.

In recent months, news outlets have reported that a loose network of conservative operatives allied with the White House has begun to dug up dirt on journalists whom it perceives as critical of the administration in order to retaliate against them and discredit their reporting.  The group has already released negative information about journalists at CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Such an organized, wide-scale effort to humiliate journalists in retaliation for criticizing an administration is virtually unprecedented in American history.

Third, the president not only attacks the independent judiciary and the independence of the press, but also, more generally, fails to recognize the legitimacy of independent power sources within the government. To Trump, everyone in his administration owes loyalty to him, rather than to their oath of office.

As one of his first acts in office, Trump asked FBI director James Comey for his “loyalty.” The FBI director takes an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, not to the president. Trump repeatedly and insultingly denounced his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not being sufficiently loyal by recusing himself from the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions’ recusal was clearly mandated by internal Department of Justice ethics rules. The Mueller Report establishes that Trump sought to pressure Sessions on several occasions to reverse his recusal decision.

The Mueller Report also establishes that Trump more than once ordered the firing of the special counsel, which probably violates the federal statute forbidding the obstruction of justice, if done with a corrupt motive (that is, for the purpose of protecting the president rather than owing to any malfeasance in office). A careful reading of the report indicates that Mueller would likely have indicted the president for obstruction of justice were it not for prior determinations by the Office of Legal Counsel that a sitting president may not be criminally indicted. Many hundreds of former federal prosecutors—Republicans as well as Democrats—confirmed that the Mueller Report described “several acts that satisfy all of the elements” for “multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”

Here’s an unusual statement the president made in 2018: “The saddest thing is that because I’m the President of the United States I’m not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department, I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI, I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing and I’m very frustrated by it.” This is a remarkably candid confession of Trump’s disdain for independent government actors, whose existence is the very point of our system of separated powers.

Here’s another possibly even more alarming statement made by Trump a couple or months before the 2018 midterm elections, in response to the Justice Department’s announcement of criminal charges against two Republican congressmen, Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins—for, respectively, diverting campaign funds to personal use and engaging in insider trading: “Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff.”

Just to be clear, this is the president of the United States castigating his attorney general for prosecuting alleged criminal acts (both men have subsequently entered guilty pleas) by Republican congressmen because it would harm the party. If any sitting Republican congressional representatives or senators criticized Trump’s authoritarian understanding of the Justice Department’s role, I missed it.

Fourth, Trump actively encourages violence. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump urged crowds at his rallies to “knock the crap out” of protestors; he wanted to see protestors “carried out on stretchers”; and he offered to pay the legal expenses of anyone beating up protestors at his rallies.

In August 2016, Trump said, with regard to the Second Amendment, that if Hillary Clinton won the presidential election and thus was in a position to appoint the replacement for the recently deceased justice Antonin Scalia, “nothing you can do folks.” Then, after a pregnant pause, he quickly added, “Although the second amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.” Just to be clear, this is a sly invitation to violence.

As president, Trump has explicitly encouraged police to “rough up” criminal suspects. At a campaign rally in Montana in October 2018, Trump expressed admiration and approval for Republican congressman Greg Gianforte, who had physically assaulted a reporter daring to ask him a question about Obamacare repeal during his 2017 special election bid for Congress: “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my guy,” Trump proclaimed.

Shortly thereafter, Trump warned that immigrants blocked at the Mexican border who threw rocks at American soldiers stationed there in response to the caravan “invasion” might be shot. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump told reporters. “I told them to consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like what they did to the Mexican military and police I say consider it a rifle.” This was the president urging American soldiers to commit war crimes. (A few days later, when the Nigerian army shot and killed rock-throwing protestors, it cited Trump’s words in justification of its actions.) In just the last couple of weeks, the president has pardoned American soldiers credibly charged with committing war crimes, which increases the likelihood of such crimes being committed in the future.

This is what Trump said in March 2019: “You know, the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.” This is a classic ploy of political demagogues: inciting violence by predicting it, while seeking to maintain plausible deniability if violence actually erupts.

In May 2019, Trump gave a speech in Florida, praising the bravery of America’s “border security people”—who, in his telling, were facing down “15,000 people marching up.” Trump then reminded his audience, his voice dripping with sarcasm: “We don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons. We can’t. Other countries do. We can’t. I would never do that. But how do we stop these people?” One rallygoer shouted in reply, “Shoot them.” The crowd exploded in laughter. The president grinned and shook his head, observing, “Only in the panhandle you can get away with that statement, folks,” eliciting applause from the crowd.

When critics complain of Trump’s inciting violence, the president’s defenders insist that he was only joking—that one should not take him literally. Yet such calls to violence have already begun coming home to roost. In 2018, the Boston Globe received death threats from someone parroting the president’s language that the press is “the enemy of the people.”

Just before the 2018 midterm elections, as Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric denouncing the caravan of Central American refugees headed to the United States—calling them “animals,” “criminals,” “smugglers,” and an “invasion”—two disturbed individuals evidently sharing the president’s animus towards immigrants of color decided to take action. In late October, Cesar Altieri Sayoc, Jr., an ardent Trump supporter, sent more than a dozen pipe bombs through the mail to prominent critics of the president, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Senator Cory Booker, and actor Robert De Niro.

Just days later, Robert Gregory Bowers, a white supremacist and anti-Semite, murdered eleven Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers had expressed alarm at the caravan bringing “invaders in that kill our people” and blamed it on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Trump himself had stated that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros had funded the caravan.

Trump apologists, such as former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, expressed “outrage” at any suggestion that the president bore responsibility for violent actions such as those of Sayoc and Bowers. To be sure, it is true that crazy people do crazy things all the time. Yet it is virtually certain that neither of these specific acts of violence would have occurred were it not for Trump’s incendiary rhetoric distorting the truth about the caravan and seeking to turn it into a national crisis for his own political purposes.

In August 2019 in El Paso, Texas, Patrick Crusius opened fire with an assault rifle at a Walmart, killing more than twenty people, most of them Latin American or Mexican. Just before the attack, Crusius had posted on the internet an anti-immigrant manifesto littered with phrases used by the president to rile up hostility to immigration—warning of an “Hispanic invasion” and accusing Democrats of supporting “open borders.” Trump responded with a speech declaring that “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy”—sentiments that might have carried greater weight had the president not spent much of his summer vacation tweeting racist insults at Democratic congressional representatives of color—telling them to “go back” to “the crime-infested places from which they came” (all four of them were U.S. citizens and three of the four were born in the United States).

Fifth, Trump undermines the legitimacy of elections by making baseless allegations of election fraud. In the fall of 2016, Trump questioned the legitimacy of the presidential election before it happened, refusing to say whether he would accept the results if he lost: “We’re going to have to see. We’re going to see what happens.” At a subsequent presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump explained, in response to a question about whether he would accept the election results if he lost: “I’ll keep you in suspense. . . We’ll see what happens.”

Partially as a result of such statements by Trump, 50 percent of Republicans said before the election that they would not have regarded Hillary Clinton as a legitimate president if she had won. One presidential historian stated at the time, “I haven’t seen anything like this since 1860, this threat of delegitimizing the federal government, and Trump is trying to say our entire government is corrupt and the whole system is rigged. And that’s a secessionist, revolutionary motif. That’s someone trying to topple the apple cart entirely.”

Ask yourself: What would have happened had the election results been flipped? That is, if Trump had won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes and lost in the electoral college, does anyone think he would have quickly conceded the election, as Clinton did? What happens in 2020 if Trump narrowly loses in the electoral college? Barack Obama was commander-in-chief of the military when the 2016 election took place; Trump will be in charge at the time of a contested 2020 election. There is a reason Trump regularly refers to “my military” and “my generals.”

Michael Cohen, the president’s former consigliere, rightly emphasized the danger in his congressional testimony last spring: “I fear that if he [Trump] loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Trump will delegitimize the 2020 presidential election in the months beforehand if he believes he is going to lose, laying the groundwork for claiming the election was stolen from him, probably through illegally cast votes. Trump repeatedly claims that three to five million illegal votes were counted in the 2016 presidential election; everyone who knows anything about how elections are conducted in the United States recognizes this is impossible. Yet half of all Republicans wrongly believe that Trump won the popular vote in 2016, and nearly three-quarters of them believe that voter fraud happens frequently in the United States, while in fact it almost never does. According to one nonpartisan academic study, out of a data set of nearly one billion votes cast, only thirty-one cases of possible voter impersonation fraud were identified.

In response to this question, “[i]f Donald Trump were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote, would you support or oppose postponing the election?,” 52 percent of Republicans said they would support delaying the election. Now that’s a scary thought.

Sixth, Trump has repeatedly used the power of his office to go after his political adversaries, just as he threatened to do during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he promised that, if elected, he would have his opponent, Hillary Clinton, thrown in jail. In the second presidential debate, Trump declared, “If I win, I’m going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your [Hillary Clinton’s] situation, because there’s never been so many lies, so much deception.”

Most sensible people shrugged this statement off as the sort of ridiculous claim Trump frequently made during the campaign rather than as something to be taken seriously. However, during his first year in office, as his poll numbers reached record lows for a president so early in his term, Trump began demanding that the FBI resume its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. The Mueller Report establishes that Trump repeatedly pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to restart the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of Clinton. In the spring of 2018, again according to the Mueller Report, Trump asked White House counsel Don McGahn to look into ordering the Justice Department to begin criminal investigations of Hillary Clinton and another Trump adversary, ousted FBI director James Comey.

It is a mystery why all lovers of democracy and the rule of law are not up in arms about the president’s seeking to pressure his Justice Department and the FBI into criminally investigating his political adversaries. Yet how many Republican officeholders have raised even a faint voice in protest?

In addition, as already noted, Trump sought to have his Postmaster General raise shipping rates on Amazon packages in retaliation for criticism of the Trump administration by the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. This summer, Trump successfully pressured the Israeli government to bar entry by two members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib, who have been among the president’s fiercest critics in Congress. Trump has also revoked the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan, who called “treasonous” Trump’s performance in Helsinki, where the president appeared alongside Russian president Vladimir Putin and sided with him over Trump’s own intelligence agencies with regard to whether the Russians had interfered in the 2016 American presidential election. Trump has also threatened to withhold disaster aid from states with Democratic administrations and hurricane funding from Puerto Rico, after the mayor of San Juan publicly criticized the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, which killed about three thousand people on the island. Recently, Trump’s Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into four auto companies that had the temerity to defy the president by voluntarily agreeing with the state of California to reduce auto emissions below the level required by current federal law.

In September, Americans learned that President Trump had abused his office for personal political gain in an even more egregious way. On July 25, 2019, Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for “a favor.” Considering the totality of the evidence unearthed by the House Intelligence Committee, and keeping in mind that impeachment proceedings do not require us to suspend our common sense, it is clear that President Trump conditioned a much sought-after White House visit for the Ukrainian president, as well as the delivery of nearly $400 million appropriated by Congress for Ukrainian defense, on the Ukrainian government’s doing Trump two personal favors. First, the Ukrainians were to investigate a “fictional narrative” (in the words of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch) of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Second, they were to investigate what have been established to be baseless allegations that former vice-president Joe Biden, Trump’s political adversary, had corruptly intervened in Ukrainian politics to secure the dismissal of then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin (allegedly to prevent Shokin from investigating corruption at Burisma Holdings Limited, an energy exploration and production conglomerate based in Kyiv, where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of directors).

The allegations against Trump are that he abused his office for personal gain by encouraging foreign interference in an American presidential election—almost precisely the scenario for which the Framers of the U.S. Constitution designed an impeachment mechanism.  Trump’s behavior with regard to Ukraine is also eerily similar to what the Mueller Report found the Trump campaign had done in 2016—welcoming Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” interference in that year’s presidential election and establishing “multiple links” between the campaign “and individuals tied to the Russian government.” (To be clear, the Report also found that there was insufficient evidence to charge an actual criminal conspiracy—an explicit or implicit agreement between the Trump campaign and the Russians to interfere in the election.)

If Trump’s Ukraine shakedown does not qualify as a “high crime and misdemeanor,” it is not clear what would. Yet it appears likely at this moment that not a single Republican congressional representative or senator will vote, respectively, to impeach Trump or to remove him from office.

It is also worth noting that, whether or not one thinks Trump’s Ukraine shakedown warrants impeachment, it comes straight out of the playbook employed by autocrats around the world: Manufacture dirt on one’s principal political adversaries, charge them with corruption or treason, and either threaten them with criminal prosecution or actually incarcerate them. Both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Erdogan of Turkey have called this play; now Trump has as well. Yet it appears that not a single Republican member of Congress has the courage to stand up against Trump’s defiling of this basic norm of democracy—that one does not criminalize political opposition.

Seventh, Trump regularly professes a bizarre admiration and affection for foreign autocrats. He often brags of the “love letters” he has exchanged with President Kim Jong Un of North Korea, arguably the most murderous dictator in the world. Trump has praised Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who has ordered the murder of thousands of drug dealers and drug users and has bragged about personally murdering a couple of them with his own hands, for doing an “unbelievable job” on drugs. Even though Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan has jailed tens of thousands of political opponents, journalists, civil servants, and university professors, Trump has declared himself a “big fan” and praised Erdogan for the “fantastic” job he has done. Trump has rooted for the election in France of the neofascist candidate Marine Le Pen. He also has praised President Vladimir Putin of Russia as a “strong leader” and admired his 82 percent approval rating. When it was pointed out to Trump that Putin has had his political adversaries murdered, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

In March 2018, Trump, ignoring advice from his national-security advisors, called to congratulate Putin on his election to a fourth term in office with an overwhelming majority—in an election in which Putin would not permit his principal opponent to run, and which nobody thought was a free and fair election. The congratulatory phone call came soon after Putin had apparently ordered the murder of former Russian spies living in Great Britain. Trump has regularly praised Mohammad Bin Salman as a “friend” and exalted the “spectacular job” he has done in Saudi Arabia, despite MBS’s role in ordering the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and MBS-critic Jamal Khashoggi.

Eighth, democracy depends on citizen engagement which, in turn, depends on government transparency. Yet Trump’s administration is the least transparent in modern history.  In 2016, Trump became the first presidential candidate in over forty years to refuse to release his tax returns. He promised during the campaign that he would release them after the election when the IRS had completed an audit of them, but it has become clear since that Trump will never release them without a court order to do so. Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin has refused to permit the IRS to release those returns in response to a demand by a House committee, as clearly authorized by a nearly 100-year-old statute.

The president, backed by his Justice Department, has also filed numerous lawsuits seeking to bar private entities such as Deutsche Bank and Mazars (Trump’s accounting firm) from complying with congressional subpoenas for Trump’s tax returns and other financial information regarding the Trump Organization—information to which the congressional committees almost certainly have a legal right, as every court adjudicating the issue thus far has ruled. The administration has also consistently blocked congressional oversight by invoking privileges that courts have never before recognized—barring, for example, former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress about Trump’s efforts to have him fire special counsel Robert Mueller and then lie about it, as detailed in the Mueller Report.

The White House refuses to release visitor logs, so citizens have little way of discovering which lobbyists spend time at the White House. The administration uses national security as a pretext to hide information regarding the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders in which, for example, he tells Russians that he is not concerned about their country’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election or to pressure Ukraine’s president into digging up dirt on Trump’s political adversary, Joe Biden. Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave up holding press conferences late in her tenure because media questioners had become so aggressive in challenging her lies. Her replacement Stephanie Grisham has given zero press conferences to date and takes questions only from friendly media such as Fox News.

Democracy depends on transparency, so that voters can become informed about governance issues. This is the least transparent presidential administration in modern history and the most aggressive in blocking traditional congressional oversight.

Democracy also depends on public servants pursuing the public interest rather than their own private interests. To a degree unprecedented in American history, Trump has declined to recognize that separation. Foreign nations and their embassies, such as Bahrain and Azerbaijan, have booked events at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., which charges hundreds of dollars more a night than the average price of similar luxury hotels in the District. Conservative think tanks book events there with administration officials as speakers, as do lobbyists representing the interests of foreign nations and interest groups seeking to do business with the administration.  The Trump Organization, which initially said that all hotel profits deriving from foreign governments would be donated to the United States Treasury, has said since the election that requiring such guests to identify themselves would be impractical.

The president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, doubled its initiation fee for new members to $200,000 immediately after the 2016 election and has doubled its profits since Trump became a serious candidate for the presidency. As of early this fall, Trump himself had spent 293 days in office at one of his family businesses—nearly a third of his days in office. These visits have generated millions of dollars of revenue for the Trump Organization to cover the lodging expenses of the Secret Service and other personnel who accompany the president on his travels.

Before becoming president, Trump bragged of doing tens of millions of dollars of business with the Saudis over the past couple of decades. For example, at a 2015 rally in Alabama, Trump noted that the Saudis “buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

One wonders if that relationship could possibly explain why Trump has sided with Saudi Arabia in its years-long dispute with Qatar, against the advice of his Secretaries of State and Defense and notwithstanding the fact that the United States’ biggest military base in the region is in Qatar, which makes the president’s position verging on insanity. The United States has also remained largely silent while Saudi Arabia kidnapped the president of Lebanon and has created the world’s worst health and famine crisis in Yemen. In November 2018, in the face of conclusions from United States intelligence agencies that they had high confidence that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman had ordered the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump insisted that those agencies simply had “feelings” on the matter, that nobody could possibly know for sure what had happened, and that in any event, he was not going to break relations with the Saudis, whom he said contributed $450 billion to the United States economy. (The actual number is less than 5 percent of that).

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, as made clear in the Mueller Report, Trump was pursuing a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow, while brazenly denying that he had any business dealings with Russia, fulsomely praising Putin, and advocating improved relations with Russia. This summer, newspapers reported that Trump suggested that Vice President Mike Pence spend two nights at Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Ireland, hours away from Pence’s official meetings in Dublin. They also reported that American military flights had been making stopovers at an airport near Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland and renting rooms there. Trump also announced that he would host next year’s G-7 summit at Trump National Doral in Miami before backing down in the face of withering criticism (including, unusually, from Republicans.)

Trump has grotesquely profited off of his presidency. In addition, there is every reason to believe that his foreign policy—for example, in the Middle East—has been influenced by business calculations, including Saudi officials brazenly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars renting rooms at Trump hotels. The president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit ethics group, refers to this as “the normalization of corruption” and “a stunning degradation of ethical norms.”

Tenth and finally, Trump is a pathological liar. The president has lied on many small matters—such as the size of the crowd at his inauguration; the weather at his inauguration; whether dressmakers in Washington, D.C., had sold out of inaugural gowns; whether the Boy Scouts’ national leader had called to congratulate Trump on his extraordinarily inappropriate speech to the Boy Scouts jamboree in West Virginia in the summer of 2017; and whether Trump had mistakenly called Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, “Tim Apple.”

Of much greater significance, of course, Trump also regularly lies about big matters. For example, Trump has lied about whether he supported the Iraq war before he opposed it; whether he had ever mocked a physically disabled New York Times reporter (you can watch the tape); whether murder rates in the United States are at a fifty-year high (they are, in fact, closer to a 50-year-low); whether President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign; whether Obama was born in the United States (the racist lie that Trump was the chief propagator of for roughly five years); whether three-to-five million illegal votes were cast in the 2016 presidential election; whether Trump would support a deal including a path to citizenship for Dreamers; whether Trump would support gun control measures after the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, or after the Walmart massacre in El Paso this summer; whether Democrats were responsible for the administration’s policy to break up immigrant families at the border; whether Trump had paid hush money to an adult-film star in the weeks preceding the 2016 presidential election to prevent her from revealing details of an affair they had in 2006 (you can listen to the tape of the phone call in which Trump participates in a campaign finance violation, for which he is an unindicted co-conspirator).

More recently, Trump lied about whether Middle East terrorists were traveling with caravans of Central Americans across Mexico; whether all former, living American presidents supported building the wall on the Mexican border; whether the Obama administration was close to going to war with North Korea; whether there would be a middle class tax cut before the 2018 midterm elections (Congress was not even in session then); whether the Mueller Report “exonerated” Trump (it explicitly did not do so); whether Trump ever said that Mexico would pay for the border wall; whether Trump had ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller; and whether Trump had spent the better part of a year denying that Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election (Trump is now back to denying it, after briefly conceding it).

The Washington Post has tabulated over 13,000 false and misleading claims made by Trump since his inauguration (the paper does not like to use the term “lies” partly because Trump may actually believe the false stories he propagates), and the pace of the lying has dramatically accelerated over time. At one point just before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump was lying at the rate of thirty times per day.

It is unclear if democracy can work if people don’t believe the truth; Trump doesn’t tell the truth. Yet 80 percent of Republicans believe Trump more than they believe CNN, which would fire (and has fired) reporters instantly for stating any of the lies that Trump spreads without apparent repercussion. According to one recent poll, 46 percent of Americans agreed that mainstream media makes up lies about Trump. I would bet a lot of money that one could not come up with even a single deliberate lie about Trump that the New York Times has published since his inauguration. By contrast, Trump lies several times a day. Yet nearly half the country believes that the mainstream media lies about Trump.

In sum, Trump violates and disparages several foundational democratic norms. One would have hoped that the Republican Party, despite its broad scale endorsement of Trump’s policy agenda, would have offered some defense of those norms and criticized Trump’s systematic violation of them. Indeed, during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, prominent Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the late Senator John McCain repeatedly reassured us that as crazy as Trump seemed, Congress and the courts would prevent him from trampling upon the Constitution. Similarly, early in Trump’s administration, leading Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan defended the president’s assaults upon democracy—specifically, Trump’s obstruction of justice in asking FBI Director James Comey to drop the criminal investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI—on the ground that the president was “new at this” and was “learning as he goes.” And today we are told by the vast majority of Republicans in the House and Senate that the president’s pressuring a foreign government into digging up dirt on his political adversaries is a “hoax,” a “coup,” and an overthrowing of the will of the voters in the 2016 presidential election. (I don’t remember Trump’s running on a campaign promise to commit multiple impeachable offenses while in office, do you?) The Republican Party actively aids and abets Trump’s assault upon democracy.

Democracy is failing today in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines, and Brazil—all nations that were generally perceived to be strongly and reliably democratic just ten or fifteen years ago. Who ever would have thought that democracy could come under similar assault in the United States—and that the perpetrator would be a popularly elected president, assisted by one of our great political parties?


3 thoughts on “Trump and the Threat to Democracy

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