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.


Tuesday Reads: Monday Night Massacre

Sally Yates, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice. March 24, 2015. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Sally Yates

Good Morning!!

The last time a U.S. President fired his Attorney General was 44 years ago in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Last night tRump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates after she announced that the DOJ would not defend tRump’s Muslim ban because she didn’t think it was legal. tRump appointed Dana Boente, US Attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia to replace her until a new Attorney General is confirmed. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Boente, 62, has worked for the Justice Department since 1984 under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He served in the department’s tax division and held several positions in the Eastern District of Virginia. He also served as the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana from December 2012 to September 2013.

In October 2015, Mr. Boente was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and was confirmed by the United States Senate that December.

The district sprawls across a wide swath of the state. It covers six million people and often handles cases that touch on national security because its territory includes facilities like the Pentagon and the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Before joining the Justice Department, Mr. Boente clerked for a chief United States district judge, J. Waldo Ackerman, in the Central District of Illinois in 1982.

Dana Boente

Dana Boente

Boente has been praised by both Democrats and Republicans, including former Attorney General Loretta Lynch; but he has indicated he has no problem defending tRump’s Muslim ban.

Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Alexandria, Va., said Mr. Boente had no hesitation about accepting the acting attorney general’s job, given his “seniority and loyalty” to the department.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Monday night, Mr. Boente pointed out that his office had already been defending the president’s executive order against a lawsuit brought in a Virginia federal court.

“I was enforcing it this afternoon,” Mr. Boente told The Post. “Our career department employees were defending the action in court, and I expect that’s what they’ll do tomorrow, appropriately and properly.”

Indeed, shortly before midnight on Monday, Mr. Boente rescinded the guidance Ms. Yates had given department lawyers earlier in the evening and formally ordered them to defend the president’s immigration ban.

If Sally Yates goes down in history as a hero for her refusal to enforce an illegal order, Boente will be remembered in the same breath with Judge Robert Bork, who followed Richard Nixon’s order to fire his Attorney General, Archibald Cox for refusing a presidential order not to continue examining the Nixon White House tapes. We all know how that turned out.

Interestingly, during Yates’ confirmation hearing, current Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions asked her if she would say “no” to President Obama if he asked her to approval an illegal order. Again from The New York Times:

As Republicans seethed over President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration in early 2015, Senator Jeff Sessions sharply questioned Sally Q. Yates about whether she had the independent streak needed to be the Justice Department’s second in command.

Mr. Sessions, Republican of Alabama, wanted to know whether Ms. Yates, a federal prosecutor from Georgia who made her career charging domestic terrorists and white-collar criminals, would be willing to stand up to the president.

“If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?” Mr. Sessions asked during a confirmation hearing for Ms. Yates.

“I believe the attorney general or deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and Constitution and give their independent legal advice to the president,” Ms. Yates replied.

Read more about Yates’ career and background at the above link.

thomas-homan

tRump capped off the night by firing the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), without any explanation. Huffington Post:

In a statement released late Monday evening, the newly confirmed DHS secretary, John Kelly, announced that Thomas Homan had been named the new acting director of ICE. The statement did not mention Daniel Ragsdale, who was being replaced. (Ragsdale resumes his role as deputy director, according to an ICE official.) ….

By promoting Homan, who most recently led the arm of ICE that enforces detentions and deportations, the Trump administration signaled its intent to place a greater emphasis on the harsh enforcement measures that Homan carried out.

As the associate director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), Homan “led ICE’s efforts to identify, arrest, detain, and remove illegal aliens, including those who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws and our border control efforts,” the DHS statement read.

Homan’s appointment also raises the possibility that Trump might attempt to carry out a campaign promise to deport many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. The Trump administration previously said that it will initially focus deportation efforts on immigrants convicted of violent crimes.

The White House continues to leak like a sieve, and yesterday and today there have been revelations galore about the infighting among tRump’s inner circle.

Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions

The Washington Post yesterday: Trump’s hard-line actions have an intellectual godfather: Jeff Sessions.

In jagged black strokes, President Trump’s signature was scribbled onto a catalogue of executive orders over the past 10 days that translated the hard-line promises of his campaign into the policies of his government.

The directives bore Trump’s name, but another man’s fingerprints were also on nearly all of them: Jeff Sessions.

The early days of the Trump presidency have rushed a nationalist agenda long on the fringes of American life into action — and Sessions, the quiet Alabam­ian who long cultivated those ideas as a Senate backbencher, has become a singular power in this new Washington.

Sessions’s ideology is driven by a visceral aversion to what he calls “soulless globalism,” a term used on the extreme right to convey a perceived threat to the United States from free trade, international alliances and the immigration of nonwhites.

And despite many reservations among Republicans about that worldview, Sessions — whose 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship was doomed by accusations of racism that he denied — is finding little resistance in Congress to his proposed role as Trump’s attorney general.

We’ll soon see. Sessions is currently being roasted by Democrats in his latest confirmation hearing.

steve-bannon

Also yesterday, The New York Times reported on the appointment of Steve Bannon as a permanent member of the National Security Council and the apparent sidelining of top tRump adviser Michael Flynn. The article is loaded with leaks about Flynn.

…the defining moment for Mr. Bannon came Saturday night in the form of an executive order giving the rumpled right-wing agitator a full seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council — while downgrading the roles of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, who will now attend only when the council is considering issues in their direct areas of responsibilities. It is a startling elevation of a political adviser, to a status alongside the secretaries of state and defense, and over the president’s top military and intelligence advisers.

In theory, the move put Mr. Bannon, a former Navy surface warfare officer, admiral’s aide, investment banker, Hollywood producer and Breitbart News firebrand, on the same level as his friend, Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, a former Pentagon intelligence chief who was Mr. Trump’s top adviser on national security issues before a series of missteps reduced his influence….

in terms of real influence, Mr. Bannon looms above almost everyone except the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in the Trumpian pecking order, according to interviews with two dozen Trump insiders and current and former national security officials. The move involving Mr. Bannon, as well as the boost in status to the White House homeland security adviser, Thomas P. Bossert, and Mr. Trump’s relationships with cabinet appointees like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have essentially layered over Mr. Flynn.

There’s much more, so I hope you’ll the whole article to learn all the details about Flynn’s waning importance.

This morning Vanity Fair  has a fascinating piece on Jared Kushner, whom tRump has been working around lately. Kushner was supposed to be highly influential in the White House, but now it appears the Steve Bannon is pushing him aside too.

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump

Little more than a week into the Trump presidency, the timing of the Friday sunset seems to be growing increasingly important. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and West Wing adviser, has been positioned as something of a mollifying presence upon his mercurial boss. “I have a feeling that Jared’s going to do a great job. He’s going to do a great job. You’ll work with him,” Trump recently declared at his pre-inaugural gala to assorted well-wishers and friends from the business community. In a White House split between those seemingly loyal to the Republican Party (Reince Priebus, the former chairman of the R.N.C., now Trump’s chief of staff), and its rabid base (Breitbart chairman turned chief strategist Stephen Bannon), Kushner appeared to be a Valerie Jarrett type—a steady familiar voice who could suss out the signal from the noise.

Kushner, along with his wife, Ivanka Trump, is also an orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat. From sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday, the couple abstains from technology and work. And early in the incipient Trump administration, that brief period has been unusually fraught. Last week, the president personally called the Park Service on the morning after his inauguration to inquire about the size of the crowds who came to watch him take the oath of office. He subsequently delivered a widely derided speech at C.I.A. headquarters that afternoon, during which he blathered on about the media’s treatment of him and his inaugural crowd size. He then sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, into the briefing room to falsely claim that it was the largest audience for an inauguration in history. During the tumult, some noticed the conspicuous absence of Kushner’s allegedly calming presence. “He wasn’t rolling calls on Saturday when this happened,” one person close to Kushner told me last week. “To me, that’s not a coincidence.”

The timing of Trump’s executive order on Friday, just moments before sundown, meant that Kushner would not be in the West Wing to absorb another cataclysmic Saturday. Indeed, Kushner observed the Sabbath as thousands of people protested outside airports across the country, children waited for their detained parents, lawyers rushed to federal court rooms, taxi drivers went on strike, and one Democratic leader broke down in tears on live television.

Like the spoiled child he essentially is, Trump has been waiting until Jared and Ivanka are observing the Sabbath to whip out his more extreme actions, and Kushner, according to The Atlantic, is “fucking furious. Read the entire article for more details.

Who knows what’s in store for today and the rest of the week? We probably won’t have to wait long to find out. So . . . what stories are you following today?