Trump Finding New Ways To Subvert Our Democracy
President Trump has left a trail of broken democratic norms and laws and his penchant for autocracy is well documented. And now he is finding more and more unique ways to subvert our democracy and cement his power.
Trump is, of course, the main driver of the current government shutdown, having been cowed by his base of extremists into demanding something that he can call a wall. He feels required to play to that base because even he recognizes that their unbending support is probably what separates him from being convicted of impeachment. And, while the shutdown not only inconveniences hundreds of thousands of federal employees but also may cause thousands more to take a hit to their credit rating with late mortgage and credit card payments, it has also impaired important parts of the government that are not considered essential.
One of those areas effected is the Justice Department and, unsurprisingly, that turns out to benefit Trump personally. Yesterday, DOJ lawyers asked the court overseeing Trump’s emoluments case to postpone indefinitely any further filings and remove any deadlines until the government shutdown ends. The lawyers claimed that they were unable to continue working on the case because the DOJ has not been fully funded. The court, which had earlier granted a DOJ request to delay discovery in this case, summarily granted their request.
Another important case that is similarly effected is the challenge to the addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The Trump administration has taken a two-track strategy for dealing with this case. On one track, they are desperately trying to venue-shop for a ruling allowing the question to be added. At the same time, they are slow-walking as much as possible any progress by the plaintiffs in this case. At one point, they had gone to courts 12 times in just 11 weeks in an attempt to delay or end the case brought by the NY State Attorney General. The game plan is to try to extend the case as long as possible until, at some point, the census questionnaire must be finalized and it will be administratively and logistically impossible to remove the citizenship question. The government shutdown and the resulting delays in this case only enhance that effort.
Beyond the shutdown, Trump is cementing his power in another unique way. As David Frum points out, Trump’s appointment of acting secretaries is designed to avoid Senate oversight. At present, there is an acting Attorney General, who was chosen outside the normal chain of command and specifically because of his views about protecting the President, an acting Secretary of Defense, and an acting EPA administrator. In just another few days, Mick Mulvaney will become the Chief of Staff (CoS) and theoretically be forced to give up his Senate-confirmed role as Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director. But it seems that Mulvaney will merely be considered an “acting” CoS in order to let him remain in his role at OMB. If not, he will be replaced at OMB by his deputy Russ Vought. Whether Vought is immediately put forward for Senate confirmation as the OMB position requires or simply becomes another “acting” director also remains to be seen. Mulvaney had already previously taken over leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a position that Congress originally declared required a degree of independence, while still head of the OMB. Finally, there will be an acting Secretary of the Interior when Ryan Zinke rides off into the sunset, or perhaps the pokey, in a matter of days. By relying on these acting cabinet officials, Trump is effectively avoiding the Constitution’s “advice and consent” requirement for the Senate.
Right now, we have a situation where Trump is personally and perhaps monetarily, as opposed to merely politically, benefiting from the government shutdown. In addition, critical appointees of the government, including the Attorney General and Secretary of Defense, have avoided Congressional oversight and are increasingly beholden to Trump. Considering that Trump has shown a desire to end the Mueller investigation and use the military for partisan, political purposes, this is a rather frightening state of affairs, reminiscent of other budding autocracies. This may be bad enough but it would be naïve to think that Trump will stop finding other ways to subvert our democracy and further cement his power.