WASHINGTON—In a blizzard of actions since his impeachment acquittal last week, U.S. President Donald Trump has been using the levers of government to punish his opponents and protect himself in what’s being called a threat to the rule of law and a slide toward autocracy.
Trump has always had strongman tendencies — the grandiose rallies and military parades, proclaimed admiration for dictators, declarations that his actions are beyond scrutiny — but his actions this week amplified that affinity in ways that could do lasting damage. Jason Stanley, a Yale University professor and the author of “How Fascism Works” told Business Insider that the tactics employed by the president and his Republican Party are “straight from the literature on authoritarianism.”
First there was the punishment of his perceived enemies: shortly after his acquittal, Trump fired some of those whose testimony to the House impeachment investigation had been deemed unflattering. In what has been dubbed the “Friday Night Massacre,” Trump dismissed his ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and marched decorated war veteran Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman out of the White House — along with Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, who also worked in the White House but played no role in the impeachment trial. Trump suggested the Pentagon should consider disciplining Vindman.
The apparent message: the perception of disloyalty will not be tolerated.
More explicit was Trump’s proclamation that he would use policy to punish New York unless it dropped investigations and lawsuits into his taxes. New York’s attorney general has been investigating several matters related to Trump and his businesses; recently, the Department of Homeland Security suspended the state’s access to trusted traveller programs that speed entry at border crossings. Trump appeared to connect the two when he tweeted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo needs to understand, in the context of the “national security” issues, that “New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harassment.”
Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, responded by tweeting that this was “quid pro quo extortion.”
“Time to call fascism by its name. Pay attention,” Shaub wrote Friday morning.
Shaub was also referring to what many have considered the most alarming episode of the past week. On Monday, the U.S. attorneys who successfully prosecuted former Trump adviser Roger Stone for crimes related to Trump’s 2016 campaign suggested a prison sentence of seven to nine years, which was in line with the standards set out in federal guidelines. On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted that the recommendation was “horrible and unfair,” and insisted that “the real crimes were on the other side.”
Hours later, the Justice Department intervened to overrule its own staff and suggest leniency for Stone. In response, all four prosecutors withdrew from the case, with one even resigning from the department.
“What political leadership did here — mandating a favour for a friend of the president in line with the president’s publicly expressed desire in the case — significantly damages the rule of law and the perception of Justice Department fairness,” former U.S. attorney Chuck Rosenberg wrote in the Washington Post. “This is not normal and it is not right, and it is dangerous territory for the rule of law.”
While Attorney General Bill Barr said the decision was unrelated to Trump’s interference, he also said the president should stop commenting publicly on such matters. “I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr told ABC. “I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
In response, Trump insisted in a tweet that he has a “legal right” to weigh in on Justice Department cases. Separately, he suggested to reporters that former FBI director James Comey and the FBI officers who investigated Trump’s 2016 campaign ought to be charged.
White House insiders claimed the flurry of actions was the result of Trump feeling “both vindicated and strengthened by his acquittal,” the Associated Press reported.
After she voted to acquit him, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she hoped Trump had learned a lesson from the impeachment process. This week, she acknowledged that “there haven’t been very strong indicators” that he has.
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Not so, said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown — Trump’s “retribution tour” shows he has indeed learned something from acquittal: “The lesson is he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.”
What’s at stake if Trump’s behaviour remains unchecked? Former U.S. attorney Joyce White Vance told the Washington Post, “That means that a president is fully above the law in the most dangerous kind of way. This is how democracies die.”