It’s Getting Worse, But A Few Republicans Could Make a Big Difference

The Washington Post reported last night that the President and his henchmen have been discussing his authority to grant pardons for members of his administration, his associates, his family members and even for himself, should any of them be at risk of criminal prosecution for a Federal crime. They are also discussing ways to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation into the President’s Russian connection. The President is especially concerned that Mueller is reportedly examining DT’s tangled finances.

In a bizarre interview with The New York Times, the President left open the possibility that he might fire the special counsel if Mueller’s investigation goes too far, even though Mueller is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation” (remember how an investigation into an Arkansas land deal led to questions about sex in the Oval Office?). 

Two observers drew the same scary conclusion from these reports. Brian Beutler of The New Republic writes:

The loud hum of chaos and spectacle engulfing the Trump administration is drowning out a creeping reality: We are on the brink of an authoritarian crisis that will make the firing of FBI Director James Comey seem quaint in hindsight.

In a more rule-bound environment, Mueller’s interest in opening Trump’s books would probably be checkmate for the president. Quite apart from the question of whether his campaign conspired with Russian intelligence to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it is widely suspected that a peek under the hood of the Trump organization will reveal serious financial crimes. Assuming that informed speculation is correct, and assuming our system of checks hasn’t broken down, Mueller would uncover the wrongdoing and bring down a president, or Trump would fire Mueller and Congress would step in to edge Trump out.

But at the moment there are no reliable sources of accountability. None.

Republicans have given every indication over the course of the past several months that no malfeasance, no matter how naked and severe, will impel them to rein in Trump or impeach him….

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the [Department of Justice] leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a [Republican] House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.

Prof. Ruth Ben-Ghiat of New York University writes for CNN that:

Just before Donald Trump took office, I argued that our new President would likely follow the “authoritarian playbook,” an approach toward governance that privileges executive power and makes the leader’s personal goals and needs the focus of his public office. Now, six months later, those predictions have come true….

warned that President Trump would escalate his attacks on the media, disregard political customs and democratic norms, and single out judges or other government employees who might challenge the legality or ethics of his actions.

He is on his way to accomplishing the most important things an authoritarian leader must do to survive over the long term. The strategies that he’s already used effectively will also guide his next phase of rule….

The most important item of the authoritarian’s playbook is this: He is in office not to serve the nation but to protect his own position of power, often enriching himself along the way….

Studies show that once political elites [such as Congressional Republicans] have concluded their deals with authoritarians and signed on publicly, they usually stick with those leaders to the bitter end.

The inauguration was six months ago today. Since then, the issue of creeping authoritarianism hasn’t been talked about much – there have been other, more immediate problems to worry about. In addition, seeing the President in action for six months has confirmed that he’s too stupid, ignorant and lazy to “seize power” in a truly authoritarian way. It seems more likely that the Trump administration will keep reversing progress and generating pain for the next 3 1/2 years, without achieving iron rule. 

But the failure of Congressional Republicans to hold the President accountable in any way is still shocking. There’s polling evidence that the Democrats could take back the House of Representatives in next year’s election, and maybe the Senate, but after reading these articles last night, I began to wonder if there could be a quicker solution. 

In fact, there is. If three Republican senators were to switch parties or declare themselves independents and vote with the Democrats, they could replace the odious Senator Turtle Face (aka Mitchell McConnell), who rules the Senate with a semi-iron hand, with a sensible Democrat. Likewise, although less likely, if 24 Republican members of the House (one-tenth of their total of 240) were to do the same, they could replace the dead-eyed granny-starver, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, with a Democratic colleague.

In fact, the Speaker of the House doesn’t even have to be a member of Congress. They could elect Joe Biden! Or The Rock! Or you! Or me! There’s no need to wait for another national election, since the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can be replaced at any time by a simple majority vote in their respective houses of Congress.

Just to show I’m not completely off the wall, respected journalist James Fallows posted “Everything Now Hinges on Three Republicans in the Senate” this morning:

By midnight on July 20, 2017, it seemed increasingly likely that Donald Trump will fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Mueller embodies what is admirable in U.S. public service … Donald Trump embodies the reverse.

Yet for now Trump has the legal power, directly or indirectly, to dismiss Mueller, if the investigation gets too close to Trump’s obviously sensitive financial concerns. And Trump himself, unaware of history and oblivious to rules, norms, and constraints, has given every indication that this will be his next step.

What happens then? [Fallows then refers to Brian Beutler’s scary article above.]

There are 52 Americans who have it within their power to prove that dark assessment wrong. Really, it would take a subset of just three of those 52. With the 52-48 current party lineup in the U.S. Senate, a switch of three votes of conscience is all it would take to have this branch of government fulfill its checks-and-balances function.

With three votes, a Senate majority could issue subpoenas and compel sworn testimony from Administration officials. It could empower its own thorough investigation, even re-hiring Robert Mueller to lead it. It could compel Donald Trump to release the tax returns about which he is so evidently nervous. It could act as if America in fact possessed a system of rule-of-law, rather than whim-of-one-man.

[Fallows then lists several Republican senators who might do the right thing, since, for example, some of them won’t run for reelection again.]

It would take only three. Some—Grassley? Heller? McCain if he is able to vote?—might think: What do they have to lose? They might as well wind up with dignity. Others … are so far away from re-election that a lot will happen in the meantime. And all of them are senators, part of a body self-consciously proud of its independence, its individual judgment, its role in defending the long-term principles of governance.

A country of 300-plus million people, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military, should not rely for its orderly stability on the decisions-of-conscience of just three people. But the United States may soon be in that situation. These names will go down in history, depending on the choices they make.