President Trump's scandal in plain sight

by Rachel Morris / 23 May, 2017
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Former FBI Director James Comey and President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

It took 18 months for Watergate to create a political crisis. Trump got there in just four months.

A self-conscious reverence for democracy has always been a far more prominent feature of political life in the US than in New Zealand. America’s Founding Fathers are near-mythic figures (and now the subjects of the juggernaut Broadway musical Hamilton) and the Constitution is a hallowed document that is also regularly referred to in daily life.

Right now, though, Donald Trump is providing a masterclass in democracy’s fragility. Many of its protections against corruption and abuse of power aren’t guaranteed by yellowed foundational texts, acts of Congress, Supreme Court decisions or constitutional amendments. They’re norms and traditions, enshrined nowhere, and Trump is riding a monster truck over them.

By far the most damaging example is Trump’s decision this month to fire FBI director James Comey. In one impulsive move, Trump has struck a dangerous blow against the delicately balanced institutions that make up America’s justice system. This has always been the crumbliest part of the edifice.

The Justice Department (to which the FBI belongs) reports to the President. But to prevent him from misusing the department’s near-limitless powers for political ends, certain safeguards have been developed over the years. The President isn’t supposed to direct the Justice Department to pursue (or drop) cases. The FBI and Justice Department aren’t supposed to discuss their work with the White House. Unlike nearly every other senior official, the FBI director serves a 10-year term, so as to maintain his independence.

These are all admirable restrictions, but the whole thing depends on the participants respecting the honour system. It was a year and a half before the Watergate scandal threw this arrangement into crisis; Trump got there in just four months.

It would be considered a crisis if a president attempted to interfere with any active investigation at the Justice Department or FBI. Much worse is that Trump fired Comey to stymie an investigation into his own campaign and associates. We know this because he said it on national television. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” he told NBC.

A spokeswoman later affirmed that the Administration wanted the FBI’s Russia investigation to “come to its conclusion”. She added, “We think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

In theory, Trump could now be vulnerable to prosecution for obstruction of justice, although it’s highly doubtful that either the Attorney General (Trump loyalist Jeff Sessions, himself entangled in the Russia inquiry) or the Republican-controlled Congress will take this step. And in a bizarre way, the brazenness of Trump’s admission may help shield him.

Revelations like these usually emerge from newspaper scoops, explosive congressional showdowns or clandestine meetings in parking garages. But Trump’s complete openness is disorienting; it’s as if the press and politicians don’t know how to deal with a scandal that’s out in the open from the very beginning, not a dirty secret that’s been exposed.

And this is what makes Trump so dangerous: he doesn’t know the lines that aren’t meant to be crossed. He barely seems aware of the core concepts underpinning US democracy: the rule of law, separate branches of government, independent public officials. And right now, there is almost nothing reining him in – no political opposition in Congress, no aides capable of curbing his worst impulses, no personal sense that there are things he just can’t do.

John Dean, who was White House counsel to Richard Nixon, told the Atlantic that he had been having recurring nightmares about Trump: “He is going to test our democracy as it has never been tested.”

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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