Last evening at dinner with friends I was asked how I thought the Trump presidency would now unfold in light of the latest purported revelations in the New York Times that, after the James Comey firing, the FBI had begun to examine the possibility that Donald Trump had been an asset of Russia and that he was possibly compromised. As usual, prophecy easily set aside analysis and an examination of the evolving pattern; we ended up discussing the now almost certain self-destruction of Donald Trump as president rather than the process by which it had come about.
One of my companions had also circulated an op-ed in this past Friday’s New York Times by Benjamin Wittes, a former editorial writer for The Washington Post, called, “What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell.” It was a more condensed version of positions that Witte, a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, previously published in the blog he co-edits, Lawfare, put out by the Lawfare Institute in cooperation with Brookings. The blog covers national security issues and was initially written by and for legal nerds.
The blog became part of the public debate over Trump when the president himself, at the beginning of his administration, after the courts blocked his ban on Muslim entry into the country, cited the blog in a tweet as supporting his position on exclusion. Trump clearly indicated that he had not read the piece nor likely could have understood it if he had read it. The reaction signaled that he had added ignorance to his indifference to both law and its requirements to treat persons without discrimination. But more on this in my next blog.
Witte’s op-ed argued that, “The public understanding of and debate over the Mueller investigation rests on several discrete premises that I believe should be re-examined. The first is the sharp line between the investigation of ‘collusion’ and the investigation of obstruction of justice. The second is the sharp line between the counter-intelligence components of the investigation and the criminal components. The third and most fundamental is the notion that the investigation was, in the first place, an investigation of the Trump campaign and figures associated with it.”
In this series of blogs, I will argue that:
- there never was a sharp line between collusion and the issue of obstruction of justice;
- there never was a sharp line between a counter-intelligence investigation and one of criminality;
- in the first place, the investigation did not begin with the Trump administration and associated figures;
- the overlaps began well before Comey was fired;
- the focus on law and the distinctions concerning law, though very important, are side issues since the fate of Donald Trump will be determined by politics and the court of public opinion where the above fine distinctions do not matter one whit; what happens in a court of law on these issues will be an after effect and not the main event.
- Most importantly, the central issue is not the legal one, whether of collusion or corruption, but the political issue and core values of the American republic concerning who can become members of that republic and how its various members are treated.
The most important decisions any state makes are NOT about the security of its citizens, as many believe, but who those citizens are, whether they have part or full citizenship and who else can become citizens. The rules of inclusion and exclusion re citizenship and the equality of status or lack of it of those included are central. Who can and cannot become members? What is the status of members of different communities who are members?
In pre-bellum America, blacks were included in membership in the state, but many or even most did not have citizenship or even mobility rights. They were slaves. At the same time, as America expanded westward, aboriginal peoples were driven off their land in exercises of ethnic cleansing. At the same time, entry to the U.S. was overwhelmingly restricted to Europeans. The picture in Canada was better, but not by as much as Canadians believe. After all, as late as before and even immediately after WWII, Canadian policy towards admission of Jews was governed by the principle that “None Is Too Many.” And Canadian policy towards aboriginal peoples was based on a combination of discrimination and forcible “conversion.”
Sometimes, as in the case of Pharaoh in Egypt according to the Torah, the ruler retained slavery and restricted exit. In contemporary America, the central and major focus of the current president has not been restricting exit but restricting entry into America and, more subtly, reinforcing old stereotypes that limit access to equal citizenship. As I did with Pharaoh in the ancient world, I will track the self-destruction of the American president as he tried to prevent the intake of some and continue inegalitarian policies towards others in the record of that self-destruction right up to the present, culminating in closing down a large portion of the government in order to get funds to build a wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep out Mexicans and Central Americans.
History is easily forgotten. We tell and repeat stories so that the lessons may seep into our unconscious and undergird our thoughts. Those tales also tell where we have been and where we may be going. Although everything in here is, or should be, mostly familiar, retelling the tale as a single recovered narrative, in installments of course, will, I believe, also reveal a pattern as well as help recall parts of the story we so easily forget. In order to gain a better grasp on where the Trump regime will end up, I thought it would be useful to trace the steps in its self-destruction based on the stages Donald Trump has taken to restrict entry and to limit egalitarianism to those who are already members.
I will do this retracing in terms of the institutions of governance systematically undermined, the techniques for doing so, the rising resistance and the situation in which the president now finds himself with his tough stance on building a wall to curtail unwanted and illegal immigration, a critical cornerstone of his candidacy and an important factor influencing his election victory.
The trend I outline is characteristic of autocratic impulses on display in many established democracies, but not as prolonged as what happens in actual autocratic regimes as in Iran or North Korea. As the U.S. presidency implodes and Theresa May’s British effort itself hits a wall over both exclusion as well as the permeability between Northern Ireland and the Republic to the south, and the Macron world stumbles simply over the issue of the degree of egalitarianism, the Trump democratic monarchical regime has its own self-identity and its own self-destructive path even when the stages seem identical.
The central concept that distinguishes liberal democracy from the arbitrary whims of mobs and monarchs is the rule of law versus the rule of one individual, the latter especially problematic for any politician who claims to embody and channel the spirit and will of “the people.” That is as it should be. “To secure the public good and private rights,” James Madison wrote in the tenth of the Federalist Papers, majority factions “must be rendered … unable to conduct and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” A lack of institutional checks on the exercise of government power is precisely why “pure” democracies of the past “have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Setting aside how Donald Trump won his position as the candidate for the Republican Party and how he won the majority support of the Electoral College, Trump began his presidency in January of 2017 with both lies about the extent of his support and the numbers at his inauguration, and an overt indifference to the recognition of women as anything more than pussies. One day after his inauguration, women in America carried out the largest single protest march in American history. Trump never ever recovered from that lack of support from women. In the current controversy over the government shutdown over funding the wall, women blame Trump (and Republicans) by a margin of 35 points. (The margin for men is only 13 points.)
Only one week after he was inaugurated, Trump issued, via executive fiat, the first travel ban against Muslims from a number of specific countries, engaged in a temper tantrum with the Prime Minister of Australia over refugee policy, and, at the end of January 2017, fired Sally Yates, the Acting Attorney General, after she refused to defend the travel ban against Muslims. Yates had instructed Justice Department lawyers not to offer legal arguments in defence of Trump’s immigration and refugee executive order. As she stated in her letter defending her actions, “My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts. In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”
When Trump signed Executive Order 13769 on 27 January 2017 barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for the next 90 days, suspending the admission of all refugees for 120 days and indefinitely suspending the Syrian refugee program, Yates took it as her statutory duty to represent the United States in legal matters and not the orders of the president. Trump in a tweet argued that Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order.” But her point was that it was not a legal order, had not been vetted by the Justice Department and would subsequently be declared to be illegal by American Courts.
What became clearer subsequently was that this was not the only reason Trump had fired Yates. Yates had just warned the White House:
- that Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, had lied to the White House not just about the extent but also about the content of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States;
- the FBI had recordings to document that lying, though she did not show the White House counsel the evidence.
That was the opening salvo of the Donald Trump presidency – restrictions on entry and an executive order considered to be, and later verified as, unlawful by the acting U.S. Attorney General. Then she was fired by Trump, big news in itself. But the story also was used as a cover for and a distraction from Sally Yates informing President Trump that the FBI had evidence linking Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, with possible collusion with the Russians who had intervened in the American presidential election. The conversations in December over Flynn’s offer to lift sanctions on Russia immediately linked two streams, the restrictions on entry into America and the collusion with Russia issue, which already involved a criminal activity, lying to the FBI.
What was Trump’s reaction to all of these issues flaring up in the first ten days of his presidency – both ignorance of law and indifference to those appointed to uphold the law, a law dealing both with discrimination and with restricting entry into the United States? Issues of collusion and corruption were conjoined from the beginning and linked to and partially clouding the collusion/criminality investigation already underway. Trump’s attitude was one of disregard and dismissal, dismissal of the core issues and disregard of those responsible for carrying out the law.
To be continued