When The Levee Breaks
Donald Trump has spent his entire political career breaching the boundaries of decency, decorum, and our democracy. His onslaught is never-ending and the barriers that constrain his political and presidential power have fallen one by one. Each time, it feels like another crossing of the Rubicon from which there will be no return to what once was. And only fools now believe that any step that Trump takes would be a bridge too far for the Republican party to respond to with anything other than empty rhetoric. Yet, even after all of this, it does feel like something fundamental broke last week, that one of the last, most important levees had finally given way.
In his interview with George Stephanopoulos, which was revealing in itself because it so vividly illustrated not only why Trump rarely gives interviews to anything approaching a real reporter but also why Mueller’s decision not to force Trump to be directly questioned was such an egregious error, the President basically invited the rest of the world to interfere in the 2020 election. When asked by Stephanopoulos if he would accept incriminating information on his 2020 opponent from foreign governments or individuals, Trump openly stated, “They have information – I think I’d take it”. His subsequent weak attempts to walk-back that statement only reinforced the belief that he would definitely still take the proposed dirt, first by having his campaign say it would be determined on a “case by case basis” and then saying he would definitely report it to the FBI only after he reviewed and determined it was “bad”. In neither case does the President say he would not take the information and use it. This follows on an earlier Axios interview with Jared Kushner in which Trump’s son-in-law also refused to state categorically that he would not accept dirt from a foreign government if it was offered again in 2020, only saying “I don’t know. It’s hard to do hypotheticals”. Both the President and what most people consider his closest confidant and most senior adviser have now openly signaled to foreign governments and individuals that they will accept whatever help can be offered in order to interfere in the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf.
At the same time, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), (unrelated to the Mueller investigation), recommended that KellyAnne Conway be fired for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act that forbids the employees of the executive branch, with a few exceptions, from engaging in certain political activity. According to the OSC, “Ms. Conway’s disregard for the restrictions the Hatch Act
places on executive branch employees is unacceptable…As a highly visible member of the
Administration, Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, send a message to all federal
employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions. Her actions erode the
principal foundation of our democratic system – the rule of law. Since at least February 1, 2019, Ms. Conway has repeatedly violated the Hatch Act during her official media appearances by making statements directed at the success of your reelection campaign or at the failure of candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. In doing so, she has used her official authority to advocate for or against declared candidates for partisan political office. OSC has given Ms. Conway multiple opportunities to come into compliance with the Hatch Act. Ms. Conway has ignored requests. To make
matters worse, Ms. Conway is a repeat offender”.
Trump has previously defended Conway for her Hatch Act violations and will certainly ignore this new recommendation, declaring, “it looks to me like they’re trying to take away her right of free speech, and that’s just not fair”. Conway herself has also been dismissive of any attempts to restrain her violations of the Act, saying, “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts”. The new White House Counsel, Pat Cipollone, another Trump defender in the mode of Attorney General Bill Barr, echoed Trump’s view that the recommendation was an attack on Conway’s First Amendment rights, adding that the OSC violated Conway’s “due process rights, and abus[ing] its discretion by issuing a Report tainted by inappropriate external influences.” In addition, in yet another indication that no criticism or investigation of the executive branch will be permitted, Cipollone began an investigation into the OSC, demanding the Office provide documents and correspondence involving the process leading up to its recommendation to the White House Counsel’s office by the end of this week.
Needless to say, in the face of these brazen attacks on our electoral system, the majority of the GOP was largely silent. Yes, there were a few lone voices that declared, in a serious tone, that, of course, they would report any offer of dirt from foreign sources to the FBI. Others, including some of Trump’s staunchest defenders, tried to equate what Trump was saying with Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s paying for “opposition research” that included hiring a foreign citizen. Still others merely insisted that the fear of US retaliation would prevent such interference from happening in 2020, while others simply treated Trump’s statement as a tempest in a teapot and that the resulting uproar was an “overreaction”.
Despite all those words, Republicans will take absolutely no action to ensure that foreign interference does not happen in 2020. A bill introduced by Senator Mark Warner that would require all campaigns to report all contacts with foreign actors to the FBI was blocked by Republicans. Majority Leader McConnell, the man who not only refused to join a bipartisan statement condemning Russian interference in October, 2016 but also threatened to treat such a statement from the Obama administration as a partisan attack, has made it clear that no effort to protect the 2020 election would advance in the Senate. He has blocked a myriad of election security measures, many of which have broad bipartisan support. He is blocking the bill to send $1 billion to state and local governments to aid with election security. He is blocking the effort to get social media firms to disclose who actually is paying for the political ads on their apps. Another bill that McConnell is blocking would ease the sharing of information between the intelligence agencies and state governments so that we don’t end up with another situation as we did in Florida where the FBI refused to identify the two counties whose voter databases had been hacked by the Russians in 2016. The Majority Leader has no interest in trying to update the country’s antiquated voting systems or push state’s to develop some sort of paper ballot system that can be audited after the election.
While it’s bad enough that Trump and the Republicans are virtually begging for foreign interference on their behalf in the coming 2020 election and encouraging elements of the executive branch to engage in illegal political activity, what is happening on the administration’s foreign policy front might, inconceivably, be even more frightening. There was an obvious agenda behind the story that the US has infiltrated the Russian electricity grid. It certainly could be that the Defense Department was sending a very clear warning to the Russians that the US would retaliate if they had any plans of beginning an attack on the US grid which the intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment earlier this year already admitted they had to capability to launch. By openly admitting that the President had not been consulted or briefed on this operation, the Defense Department may have also been setting the precedent for CYBERCOM’s use of expanded powers without Presidential approval to respond to “an active, systematic, and ongoing campaign of attacks against the Government or people of the United States in cyberspace, including attempting to influence American elections and democratic political processes” by Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran. Those expanded powers without Presidential sign-off were granted to CYBERCOM in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 passed last year by Congress. More disturbingly, it also appears that CYBERCOM and the intelligence community decided not to trust the President with this information because of the “possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials”. What that says about the state of civilian control of the military is actually quite frightening, especially considering Trump decried the story as fake news and accused the New York Times of treason for running it.
The question about whether the President is actually in control of US foreign policy is further clouded by the response to the attacks on two ships in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iran hawks immediately seized on the incident to bolster their never-ending desire to attack Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo’s declaration that the unattributed video of an Iranian boat supposedly removing an unexploded charge from the side of a tanker proved the Iranians were behind the attack was met with skepticism by other foreign leaders. That skepticism seemed valid not only because that method was at odds with the reported details of the attack but also because Pompeo has been willing, without evidence, to link the Iranians to other attacks that it is clear the Iranians did not carry out, such as ones in Afghanistan which the Taliban claimed credit for, or had no direct control over, such as Houthi attacks on Saudi targets. Such skepticism also speaks to the general lack of credibility the Trump administration has with our allies in general, yet another particularly depressing and dangerous state of affairs.
The confusion is compounded by the fact that there is a leadership vacuum at the top of the Department of Defense. Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan is apparently an empty suit, obsessed with his image and still focused on doing the bidding of his former employer, Boeing. He has apparently allowed himself to be cut out of the decision loop, letting Bolton and the NSA contact low-level Defense Department staffers directly and interfere in the decision-making process. Shanahan apparently takes weeks to respond to requests from four star generals and admirals and also apparently takes the Trump approach to briefings, relying on charts and pictures rather than the written word. And now Pompeo is taking the unusual step for a Secretary of State of going to visit U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command presumably with the intention of drumming up support for some kind of attack on Iran.
Pompeo and Bolton have also been desperately searching for ways to launch a legally authorized attack on Iran. After initially floating the idea that it could be covered by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that authorized the attacks against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, Pompeo has now moved on to the idea that the President has the right to “defend American interests” anywhere in the world, whatever that means, with a limited engagement use of military force. Incredibly, there seems to be a belief inside the Trump administration that the US could actually engage in a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and, somehow, the situation would not escalate from their. On the other hand, such a strike was always going to be the end point of the disastrous decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and the reintroduction of sanctions to begin with.
Remarkably, while Pompeo and the Iran hawks have been escalating the rhetoric, Trump himself has been rather subdued about the supposed Iranian threat. While supporting Pompeo’s conclusion about Iran’s responsibility for the tanker attacks, there have been no tweetstorms attacking the Iranians and the ayatollahs, not even derogatory nicknames. This disconnect between the President’s unusually subdued response and the aggressiveness of Pompeo in particular further clouds the picture of what is the actual US foreign policy goal in this situation and who is driving it.
Of course, all this is happening with the backdrop of Trump’s continual abuses of power, his denial of the constitutionally authorized oversight responsibilities of Congress, and his obsession with his own looming re-election campaign which officially kicks off tonight. Barr and the DOJ will continue to do whatever it takes to protect the President, whether that means offering increasingly ridiculous legal arguments to tie up ongoing court cases or intervening to protect Paul Manafort from the rigors of Rikers Island. Any attempts from within the government to hold the administration to account will be met with the intimidating tactic of investigating the investigators, as Barr and now Cipollone have aptly demonstrated. And, with an increasingly infantile President distracted by an all-encompassing focus on his own re-election campaign, other officials within his administration with their own specific agendas will have more leeway to act relatively unilaterally.
All this and more combines to give the feeling that almost all barriers have been breached, the levee has finally and completely broken. Trump and the Republicans are openly supporting the corruption of our electoral system simply to remain in power. They are actively seeking the help of foreign interests and giving a green light to the illegal use of the executive branch to further their political interests. The chain of command within the executive branch is seemingly severely ruptured, leaving confusion about who is actually making policy and decisions within the administration. The President himself is emboldened, having avoided significant fallout from the Mueller report and seeing the timidity of the Democrats in their unwillingness to even begin impeachment hearings. As Glenn Kirschner notes, “We’re at a bad place. They’re emboldened and not trying to hide it anymore…There’s no accountability”. It will only get worse as Trump feels he needs to take more and more drastic actions to salvage what looks to be a disastrous re-election campaign, such as today’s signalling of the potential beginnings of mass deportations. And, accordingly, it is increasingly difficult to believe that Trump will ultimately respect the result of the 2020 election if he is not the winner, something I think not even Republicans are actually prepared for.
When The Levee Breaks was a song about the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. That may seem like nothing compared to what we might see from Trump and the GOP between now and November, 2020.
Photo credit: “Breached Farm Levee in East Carroll Parish” by lagohsep is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0