Wed, Jun 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Donald Trump and the erosion of democratic norms in the US

For some, the president’s efforts to undermine the US Department of Justice and the Mueller investigation represent a threat to democracy

By Tom McCarthy  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Ask people with deep knowledge of the US Department of Justice about the damage US President Donald Trump might be doing to the US, and the conversation quickly flips back to Watergate.

Following then-US president Richard Nixon’s failed attempt to pull the plug on a special prosecutor who turned out to be on to something, the need for investigators to work free from White House interference was recognized by the public and reinforced by elected officials.

However, now Trump is president, the public can seem apathetic or amnesiac and the norms governing the department’s independence are being tested. Severely.

In interviews, two former assistant attorneys general, law professors and analysts from across the political spectrum used recurring words to describe Trump’s assault on justice: “dangerous,” “alarming” and “high-stakes.”

Some analysts have warned that national security has also been endangered, as Trump has undermined public trust in the FBI and intelligence agencies whose work is often conducted in secret and who therefore depend uniquely on such trust to function.

The question is whether Trump’s snips and snaps at the norms of the department’s independence represent some greater dislocation: A constitutional crisis of some kind or even an erosion of the rule of law in the US, as some commentators have posited.

In the past few weeks, Trump has escalated his war on his perceived foes in the department, which hosts the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged collusion between Moscow and Trump campaign officials.

That investigation, Trump has informed his Twitter followers, is the work of a “criminal deep state” engaged in a “witch hunt” originally engineered by none other than former US president Barack Obama.

If the Trump-supporting public is bothered by that kind of freewheeling conspiracy talk, there is little sign of it. The president’s average approval rating is hovering close to 42 percent, pretty good for him.

However, others are deeply bothered by Trump’s seemingly nonstop provocations directed at the FBI, the attorney general, the intelligence apparatus and other department agencies.

On Thursday last week, Trump casually granted a pardon to race-baiting conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who in 2014 pleaded guilty to campaign finance charges.

The pardon was taken as a potential signal to former associates not to “flip” and cooperate with federal prosecutors — because even if they are convicted, a pardon might be waiting.

In an interview aboard Air Force One, the president mentioned he was considering pardoning other boldface names with “unfair” convictions.

“We’ve never had a president attack the intelligence and law enforcement agencies that work for him in this way,” Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and assistant attorney general under former US president George W. Bush, said in an e-mail. “He’s attacking them in order to discredit the Mueller investigation, but the baleful impact on those agencies’ morale and on public trust in them unfortunately extends far beyond that investigation.”

While whispers of a “constitutional crisis” are in the air, many mainstream analyses reject that idea, pointing out among other things that the Mueller investigation continues full steam ahead, no matter how much Trump might whine about it.

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