Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trumped: The Return of Democracy

I’m happy I lived long enough to see this day. I wasn’t sure I would. I knew it would come, eventually. I’ve always had faith in America and its institutions, even if I’ve lost faith in some of its populace. Our long national nightmare is not quite over but the rest of the American people have begun to awaken. Beginning with President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey eight days ago and the appointment of former FBI head Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russiagate, American democracy will be saved.

This is not hyperbole, or melodrama, or an overreaction. Over the past five months, American institutions have been under assault from both foreign and domestic enemies, and America has come the closest it has ever been in its 241-year history to its collapse as a failed state and transformation into an autocratic dictatorship. The campaign to destroy American democracy may have been instigated by and backed by Russia and its former KGB mastermind Vladimir Putin but its implementation was carried out by an American citizen and his coterie. The plan was simple, and not original: it has been implemented many times by Russia in many countries around the world. 

The first step was to tear down the democracy’s institutions. Putin’s surrogate began by attacking the credibility of the incumbent president of the United States. Donald Trump made the outrageous claim that President Barack Obama was not an American citizen. He insisted Obama had not been born in this country, that his birth certificate had been faked, and that he was therefore not legitimately president of the United States. Trump then ran for president himself, violating all political norms by attacking his primary opponents, not on policy positions, but through argument ad hominem. “Low-energy” Jeb Bush. “Little hands” Marco Rubio. “Look at that face” Carly Fiorina. “Lyin” Ted Cruz. He compared Ben Carson to a child molester and called Sen. Lindsey Graham “one of the dumbest human beings I have ever seen.” Once he had secured the Republican nomination, Trump turned his attention to the Democrats: “crazy” Bernie Sanders and “crooked” Hillary Clinton.

Throughout the campaign and into his presidency, Trump relentlessly attacked one of the greatest institutions of democracy: the fourth estate. He claimed the media were “dishonest” and their reporting was “fake news”. His spokespeople pushed “alternative facts” while he stood at the podium and dubbed the media “the enemy of the people.” This is how tyrants come to power and stay in power: by subjugating and controlling the press and with it the free flow of information. His goal was to turn the people away from the truth and to replace legitimate news sources with his version of the truth: alternative facts.

Trump took another page out of Putin’s playbook by attempting to discredit the judiciary, another pillar of democracy. During the campaign, Trump attacked  U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, arguing the judge’s Mexican heritage should disqualify him from hearing a civil case against Trump. When Republican-appointed Judge James L. Robart issued a temporary injunction against Trump’s illegal “Muslim ban" executive order, President Trump attempted to delegitimize him by calling him a “so-called judge.”

Immediately upon entering the White House, Trump began his presidency by ordering his press secretary Sean Spicer to lie to the public about the size of the crowds at his inauguration. Lying became a hallmark of the Trump administration. As with many autocratic, banana republic  tin-plated dictators, Donald Trump embraced nepotism, turning his election into a family affair. His son-in-law Jared Kushner, and weeks later his daughter, Ivanka, were installed in offices in the West Wing of the White House. As is the practice of many banana republic dictators, Trump brought his own private security team to the White House, yet he still drained the U.S. treasury siphoning millions of dollars for Secret Service security for Trump tower in New York, his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and his adult children on their worldwide business travels.

Trump continued his attack, this time on American values by installing a white supremacist and anti-Semite as his de facto Chief of Staff, a move that spurred the alt-right movement and led to dozens of physical attacks against Muslims, Jews, gays, and blacks. For the first time in its 241-year history, America is no longer seen as the bulwark of freedom and democracy. Instead, comparisons were made to the early days of Nazi Germany. There was a sense of fear among minorities in America. The land whose harbor bore a great statue welcoming immigrants was now, under President Donald Trump, closing its door on refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Less than three months into his presidency, Donald Trump fired all of the country’s U.S. attorneys general -- including the man he had promised not to fire, Preet Bharara, the New York attorney general whose jurisdiction encompassed many of Trump’s businesses. Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she raised questions about Trump-appointed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s inappropriate ties to Russia. Trump fired FBI director James Comey, the man investigating Trump’s ties to Russia, after he asked Comey to drop his investigation into Flynn and to pledge his loyalty to Trump. This is what autocrats do: they make anyone who gets too close to the truth disappear. But that’s not how democracy operates. America is a nation of laws, not of men. And in a democracy no man is above the law, not even the president.

This is not the end; it is merely the beginning of the restoration of our democracy. It will not happen overnight. The truth must come out, and it will set us free.  Robert Mueller will use his broad powers as special counsel to ferret out the truth over the months that follow. We will learn who else within Donald Trump’s coterie had dealings with the Russians, and there will undoubtedly be new names added to the list that already includes Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Trump campaign aide Carter Page, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump advisor Roger Stone, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, Trump advisor J.D. Gordon, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The investigation will also reveal who in our government played a role in the attack on America. We already know Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was told about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election 10 weeks before the election and resisted the Obama administration’s proposal that eight senior lawmakers write a letter to state election officials warning them of the possible threat posed by Russian interference. We already know that a month before the Republican party nominated Trump, when then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a private conversation with top Republicans that Donald Trump was on Putin’s payroll, that current Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan “immediately stop[ped] the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy,” according to the Washington Post. Who else high up in our government knew what was going on? What did they know and when did they know it?

These are the questions Americans demand be answered. There will be many complex and shocking details yet to come. Already, we have seen President Donald Trump invite Russian spies – and make no mistake, that’s what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak are – into the Oval Office, along with Russia’s state-controlled propaganda press who no doubt placed electronic listening devices there during their visit, while the American press was specifically excluded. We’ve already seen President Donald Trump reveal code-name Top-Secret intelligence to the Russians, thereby endangering the lives of the men and women who procured this information and jeopardizing our relationship with the nation and its intelligence agency – Israel’s Mossad – that gave us this highly classified information. In fact, that action alone jeopardizes our relationship with every country with whom we share intelligence, as they will no longer feel safe entrusting us with their secrets.

The destruction – or “deconstruction” of American institutions, as Trump’s de facto Chief of Staff Stephen Bannon describes it – is nothing more than slow motion treason. Next month, June 19 will mark the anniversary of the day Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for giving Top-Secret information to the Russians in 1953. How will we deal with similar treason in 2017?

Some Trump apologists argue giving Top-Secret information to the Russians is not treason because the president can declassify any intelligence information; others argue a president cannot be criminally indicted (an open legal question). To me, these arguments echo President Richard Nixon’s justification "When the president does it, that mean's it's not illegal." I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now.

The investigation will continue into 2018. If Trump has not resigned, it is likely the Democrats will take control the House of Representatives and begin impeachment proceedings. One might reasonably ask why the Republicans would not want to hold impeachment hearings immediately. After all, even if Trump were to be impeached and removed from office, the Republican vice president would take over and the Republicans would still control all three branches of government and be able to enact their legislative agenda without this distraction. Their reticence therefore cannot be partisan; there must be another reason. They’re not putting party ahead of country, so what is it? As I asked, Who else high up in our government knew what was going on? What did they know and when did they know it? Impeachment hearings would eventually get to the truth and answer these questions, and there are some who do not want their roles publicly known. However, with today’s appointment of a special counsel there will be an investigation and the truth will come out. This is just the beginning.

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