Lazy Caturday Reads: The Specter of Dictatorship in America

By Rudi Hurzlmeier, German cartoonist

Good Afternoon!!

Trump has gone to Florida for the long weekend, while the rest of us catch our breaths and try to process the horrifying events that followed the impeachment acquittal. More journalists are now writing about the specter of dictatorship in America.

Andrew Feinberg at The Independent: I spoke to experts on authoritarian rule about Trump’s behavior this week. They say 2020 could be our last free election.

Over the course of President Trump’s impeachment trial, Democrats warned the Republican-controlled Senate that acquitting Trump would mean he had successfully stymied most attempts to subject him or his administration to even a modicum of Congressional oversight. They warned that an acquittal would embolden him to finally exert full control over the entirety of the executive branch; norms, customs or guardrails be damned.

That’s exactly what Americans have seen in the days since Senate Republicans (minus Utah’s Mitt Romney) voted to absolve him of responsibility for his attempt to blackmail a foreign government.

According to several people closest to the President, he has internalized the exact lesson that Democrats feared he would, and for some time now has been intent on using the flexibility provided him by his acquittal and a compliant cohort of aides to begin settling scores.

Thursday’s Child – by Arthur Rackham (1907)

You’re familiar with the list of recent outrage, including the firings of Sondland and the Vindman brothers and trying to get the military to investigate Alexander Vindland, punishing New York by cutting off residents’ access to the Trusted Traveler program, and using Bill Barr to intervene in the Stone and Flynn cases.

…for scholars who study the authoritarian regimes for which the 45th President has repeatedly expressed admiration, Trump’s intervention in the Stone case represents a troubling milestone.

“The United States looks to be moving in the direction of Hungary or Poland, with the justice system starting to become a tool under the power of the executive branch that is being used for partisan ends,” said Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor who studies authoritarian politics.

“Republicans have shown no interest in sharing power or having a multi-party democracy, they’ve shown no interest in the rule of law,” he added, because a guiding concept of the Republican style of politics perfected by Trump is a wholesale rejection of the Democratic Party as a legitimate expression of voters’ political will….

Another scholar of authoritarianism, New York University’s Ruth Ben-Ghiat, said Trump’s co-opting of the Justice Department is typical of a democracy falling under the control of a dictator.

“You see this in authoritarian states… those in important positions like the attorney general or equivalent end up spending a lot of their time on the personal vendettas of their leader,” she said, offering the example of Barr’s recent trip to Italy to pressure Italian security services into providing information that would help discredit the Mueller investigation. “Inevitably, the people who last in the cabinet of an authoritarian leader are people who end up doing his personal-slash-official business, because you can no longer separate the two.”

Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe,Siamese cat on branch with apple blossom

Ben-Ghiat said the way Trump’s cabinet and congressional Republicans have adapted to him is a textbook example of “personalist rule.”

“This is a perfect example of when these men come to office and there is no longer a separation between their private profit and public office,” she explained, with various “lackeys” like Barr doing things that make it difficult to tell where the Justice Department’s business ends and Trump’s personal business begins.

And even though there is a presidential election in nine months, Ben-Ghiat said Republicans will continue to enable Trump’s whims and act as if there will never again be a Democratic president, because the endgame involves Trump and his allies protecting themselves by staying in power.

I recommend reading the whole article at The Independent.

 

At The Atlantic, Franklin Foer writes that Trump wants the U.S. to be like Ukraine: Now We Know What Kind of Authoritarian Trump Aspires to Be.

Donald Trump’s obsession with Ukrainian corruption turned out to be genuine: He wanted it thoroughly investigated—for the sake of its emulation. The diplomats who testified in front in Adam Schiff’s committee explained and exposed the Ukrainian justice system. Their descriptions may have been intended as an indictment of kleptocracy, but the president apparently regarded them as an instructional video on selective prosecution, the subversion of a neutral judiciary, and the punishment of whistle-blowers who expose corruption.

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, his critics have speculated about the model of illiberal democracy that he would adopt as his own. After the past week—which saw the firing of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the revocation of the Justice Department’s sentencing memo for Roger Stone, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s increasingly heavy-handed control of the investigations into his boss—there’s less doubt about the contours of the state Trump hopes to build. He’s creating Kyiv-on-the-Potomac.

Feridun Oral (1961-present, Turkish)

The House Intelligence Committee narrative featured a villainous bureau in Kyiv called the Office of the Prosecutor General. On paper, this department is akin to America’s own Department of Justice, but in practice, it acted more like an auction house where top government lawyers would entertain bids from oligarchs. These prosecutors have been integral to the maintenance and perversion of the system. Oligarchs would abuse the office to bring cases against old enemies; they also used the office to punish critics of their corrupt practices. And, in the most extreme example, one Ukrainian president weaponized the office against his primary political opponent: He actually locked her up. (It was Paul Manafort’s job, as a consultant to that president, to justify the arrest to the rest of the world.)

Again, I recommend reading the entire piece.

Sasha Abramsky at The Nation: Republicans Have Made It Clear They Will Let Trump Become a Dictator. Will We?

Trump’s attacks on the federal judiciary are the domestic Signal this week. Freed from all accountability by the Senate, the realtor’s inner autocrat is on full display, with a pressure campaign on the Justice Department to back off on its sentencing recommendations for his convicted friend Roger Stone, and with an extraordinary flurry of tweets personally attacking the judge in Stone’s case.

Trump’s actions got so extreme that, amazingly, even Attorney General Barr finally had enough. On Thursday evening, in an extraordinary exchange, Barr, who has done more than anyone else to protect and enable this lawless presidency, said that Trump’s tweets were making it impossible for him to do his job. Trump wasn’t humbled. By Friday, he was on the attack once again, claiming that he had the legal right to interfere in federal criminal cases.

By Rudi Hurzlmeier

For Senator Susan Collins, who absurdly claimed that Trump had learned his lesson after being impeached by the House, and for the other “moderate” Republicans who voted to acquit, this week has been a nightmare. Sure, they can dismiss it as simply more Trumpian Noise, but when the attorney general of the United States personally undermines his own career prosecutors to do a solid for the president, that’s far more serious than mere chatter.

And there’s no indication things will get better anytime soon. To the contrary, between now and November we are likely to see Trump fully unleashed.

We are heading into election season led by a president consumed with personal vendettas and convinced that he is surrounded by conspirators. Paranoid and narcissistic, he is firing anyone who stands in his way, demanding ever more craven demonstrations of loyalty from his courtiers. In Tennessee, legislators are debating a resolution to declare CNN and The Washington Post fake news because of their critical coverage of Trump.

Sally Yates at The Washington Post: Trump thinks the Justice Department is his personal grudge squad.

The imperative of Justice Department independence from political influence has deep roots. After the Watergate scandal, Attorney General Griffin Bell sought to reestablish Justice’s independence and ensure that the department would be “recognized by all citizens as a neutral zone, in which neither favor nor pressure nor politics is permitted to influence the administration of the law.” The nation had lost faith in the Justice Department and the rule of law, so during the Carter administration Bell instituted strict limits on communications between the White House and Justice to prevent any “outside interference in reaching professional judgment on legal matters.”

By Robert McClintock

Since Bell’s tenure, attorneys general in Democratic and Republican administrations alike have issued largely similar policies to adhere to the course Bell mapped for the department to live up to its promise of impartial justice. All have observed a “wall” between the White House and the Justice Department on criminal cases and investigations. While it is appropriate to communicate about administration policies and priorities, discussion with the White House about specific criminal cases has traditionally been off-limits. Presidents and department leaders from both parties have recognized that for case decisions to have legitimacy, they must be made without political influence — whether real or perceived. Implementation of these restrictions has not always been perfect, but the department’s independence has remained honored and unquestioned.

Until now.

While the policy is ostensibly still in effect, it is a hollow ode to bygone days. From virtually the moment he took office, President Trump has attempted to use the Justice Department as a cudgel against his enemies and as a shield for himself and his allies.

But now Trump is trying to turn back time. Read the rest at the WaPo.

And what about Trump’s attacks on the Intelligence Community? Are they working? Jefferson Morley at The New Republic: Is the CIA’s Director Going Full MAGA?

When President Trump called in his State of the Union address for legislation that would allow crime victims to sue sanctuary cities for offenses committed by undocumented immigrants, CIA Director Gina Haspel rose to her feet, clapping. It was an unusual display of partisan spirit for the nation’s top intelligence officer, especially as it concerned a domestic law enforcement issue, an area where the agency is forbidden by law from acting.

By Valentina Andrukhova

It was “not right” for Haspel to attend the speech, much less applaud it, said Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as director of central intelligence under President George W. Bush. Bruce Riedel, the CIA’s former Saudi Arabia station chief, was similarly categorical. “It is odd that a DCI who avoids public appearances of any kind would make a public appearance at the most fractious SOTU in our time,” he told me in an email. “The job is being more politicized than it should be.”

Haspel was not required to attend the State of the Union. The CIA director is not even a Cabinet officer, noted ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou. “Why was she even there, much less in a seat of honor, up front?” he said in an interview. “The joint chiefs don’t applaud. The Supreme Court justices don’t applaud. The CIA director shouldn’t, either.”

Haspel’s appearance raises the unsettling possibility that Trump, for all his denunciations of the “deep state,” might have an ally at the top of the CIA. With Attorney General Bill Barr fulfilling Trump’s whims at the Justice Department, a compliant intelligence director in Langley would enhance Trump’s ability to pursue worse whims—including, potentially, foreign aid to his political and personal fortunes.

A few more stories to check out:

Lucian K. Truscott IV at Salon: Can we stop tiptoeing around the fact that Trump is behaving like a dictator?

Shan Wu at The Daily Beast: Bill Barr Is Wrecking the Justice Department, And It May Never Recover.

Eric Boelert at Press Run: Trump unleashed — does the press know how to handle his authoritarian ways?

Cat by Lionel Lindsay (1874-1961) Australian painter

I’ll end with this sobering piece by Fred Kaplan at Slate: “The President Has the Power to Basically Destroy the World”

On Oct. 30, 2017, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on whether the president needed new congressional authorization to use military force against terrorists around the world. When his turn came to ask questions, Democratic Sen. Edward Markey asked the witnesses whether Trump could launch a nuclear first strike without consulting anyone from Congress.

At first, the witnesses, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, hesitated, calling the question “hypothetical,” but Markey wouldn’t relent, and finally, Mattis allowed that the president could order a first strike if an adversary was seen “preparing” to launch an attack.

Markey, a longtime advocate of nuclear arms treaties, knew the answer before asking the question, but some of the senators were surprised. Among them was the Republican chairman, Bob Corker. A businessman from Tennessee, Corker was deeply conservative, but he was also agitated by stories he’d been hearing about Trump’s mental state. Recently Corker had made a stir by likening the White House to an “adult day center” and warning that Trump’s reckless threats toward other countries could pave a “path to World War III.”

Read the rest at Slate if you dare.

Enjoy this long weekend Sky Dancers! With any luck Trump will spend his time on the golf course and watching TV so we can have a short break from his insanity. This is an open thread, as always.


35 Comments on “Lazy Caturday Reads: The Specter of Dictatorship in America”

  1. dakinikat says:

    Great Cat pix selection today BB! I couldn’t even choose a favorite they’re also wonderful!

  2. dakinikat says:

  3. dakinikat says:

    • bostonboomer says:

      Friends say the Conways are staying together for their children, although the couple is not always in the same city. Mr. Conway spent chunks of time last year in New York before leaving his firm, while Ms. Conway remained in Washington, where the Trump crowd has largely blackballed her husband.

      In November, Mr. Conway attended a “Resistance” party at the New York apartment of Molly Jong-Fast, an author and daughter of Erica Jong. The comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photograph on Instagram of Mr. Conway hiding coyly behind the liberal journalist Soledad O’Brien. Nearby were E. Jean Carroll, a writer who has accused Mr. Trump of rape, and the Hillary Clinton stalwart Philippe Reines.

  4. President Trump just prefers to be closer to King Jesus of Poland in many ways, no different than many religious folk alike.

  5. bostonboomer says:

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  8. dakinikat says:

  9. quixote says:

    The Supreme Court started failing a while ago. Citizens United was a Dred Scott-type decision and it was obvious at the time. The legislative branch has been voting “present” except for some polite hand signals to stop in the form of the Mueller investigation and impeachment.

    But there is never any enforcement when Congress is ignored, obstructed, and flouted. Once Dems controlled the House, they could be using funds to force at least some attention from the perps.

    Even before that, they could at least be doing what Kamala Harris is doing in the Senate. Saying out loud what’s going on and fighting legislative battles even if they are lost causes.

    So I count Congress as a failed check on the Pile O’ Garbage spreading out from the White House. This business of hoping to pass the buck to “The Voters” while doing nothing effective to slow down election and vote suppression and fraud. It’s a kind of complicity. It enables the squatter in the White House.

    If we actually manage to get an effective President in November and throw out the grifters and seatwarmers from Congress, the lesson I’m going to take from it is that God really does watch over fools.

    • bostonboomer says:

      One guy on the House Intel Committee told MSNBC yesterday that they are considering withholding funds for the DOJ from the new budget.

      • quixote says:

        That’s something. It’s a wee bit more than Collins feeling troubled. But, uh, hello? the country is burning down? I can’t shake the feeling that considering a meeting to plan for a potential flowchart of possible responses in case there’s a need for it is so bloody far behind the curve it’s tragic.

        Reminds of Charlie Pierce’s line about bringing a peashooter to Omaha Beach.

        Really. Our only hope is that God watches over idiots.

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  11. quixote says:

    LOVE the cats. The cats keep me going!

  12. palhart says:

    Today it’s been reported that Bloomberg is considering Hillary as his VP.