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There is nothing about the Trump administration that should threaten America’s system of government. The Founding Fathers were realistic about the presence and popularity of demagogues. The tendency of political systems to slip into autocracy weighed heavily on their minds. That power corrupts, and that power can be leveraged to amass more power, was a familiar idea. The political system the founders built is designed to withstand these pressures, and to a large extent, it has.
So why, then, are we surrounded by articles worrying over America’s descent into fascism or autocracy? There are two reasons, and Trump is, by far, the less dangerous of them.
Trump has shown himself unconcerned with the norms of American democracy. He routinely proclaims elections rigged, facts false, the media crooked, and his opponents corrupt. During the campaign, he flouted basic traditions of transparency and threatened to jail his opponent. His tendencies toward nepotism, crony capitalism, and vengeance unnerve. His oft-stated admiration for authoritarians in other countries — including, but not limited to, Vladimir Putin — speaks to his yearning for power.
Amid all that, David Frum’s Atlantic cover story, “How to Build an Autocracy,” is a chilling read. “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered,” he writes. The argument works because its component parts are so plausible. Frum does not imagine a coup or a crisis. He does not lean on the deus ex machina of a terrorist attack or a failed assassination attempt. The picture he paints is not one in which everything is different, but one in which everything is the same.
He imagines a Trumpian autocracy built upon the most ordinary of foundations: a growing economy, a cynical public, a cowed media, a self-interested business community, and a compliant Republican Party. The picture resonates because it combines two forces many sense at work — Trump’s will to power and the fecklessness of the institutions meant to stop him — into one future everyone fears: autocracy in America.
But what Frum imagines is not an autocracy. It is what we might call a partyocracy — a quasi-strongman leader empowered only because the independently elected legislators from his party empower him. The crucial sentence in Frum’s account is this one: “As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party.”
I am a critic of America’s system of government. For all its genius, I believe it is more fragile, and less sensible, than civics textbooks admit. I think the profusion of veto points makes governance too difficult, the disproportionate power given to small states is indefensible, and the absence of any mechanism to resolve conflicts between different branches is dangerous.
But the danger of a demagogic, aspirational autocrat winning the White House is one problem the Madisonian constitutional order is exquisitely designed to handle. The founders feared charismatic populists, they worried over would-be monarchs, and so they designed a system of government meant to frustrate them.
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The system showed its power this weekend, when Judge James Robart of the Western District of Washington issued a temporary restraining order freezing enforcement of Trump’s immigrant and refugee ban. Trump raged before the ruling — “if something happens blame [Robart] and court system,” he tweeted — but his administration complied with it. The spectacle of the president of the United States seeing his signature program stopped by a district judge in Washington state ruled is a reminder of how many veto points the system contains.
The judiciary, however, is not the branch of government with the most power or the most responsibility to curb Trump’s worst instincts. That designation belongs to the US Congress.
The president can do little without Congress’s express permission. He cannot raise money. He cannot declare war. He cannot even staff his government. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to compel Trump to release his tax returns, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to impeach Trump unless he agreed to turn his assets over to a blind trust, they could. If Congress, tomorrow, wanted to take Trump’s power to choose who can and cannot enter the country, they could. As Frum writes, “Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.” He just thinks they won’t.
Frum offers a persuasive account of why congressional Republicans are likely to fall before Trump’s will, and he is probably right. But I want to make the argument that there is nothing inevitable about that: it is not the system envisioned by the Constitution and it is not the system we would have if voters took Congress’s enormous power seriously and were as interested in who ran it as in who ran the presidency.
And I want to shift the locus of responsibility a bit: if Trump builds an autocracy, his congressional enablers will, if anything, be more responsible than him. After all, in amassing power and breaking troublesome norms, Trump will be doing what the Founders expected. But in letting any president do that, Congress will be violating the role they were built to play. We need to stop talking so much about what Trump will do and begin speaking in terms of what Congress lets him do.
Donald Trump is a paper tiger. But the US Congress is a tiger that we pretend is made of paper. It is, at this point, taken for granted that congressional Republicans will protect their co-partisan at any cost. It is, at this point, expected that they will confirm Trump’s unqualified nominees, ignore his obvious conflicts of interest, overlook his dangerous comments, and rationalize his worst behavior.
That expectation — and the cowardice it permits — is the real danger to American democracy.
The framers of the Constitution were not infallible, and they were particularly wrong about a core feature of the government they built: They designed the American political system believing it would, uniquely, resist the creation and influence of political parties. It did not.
In his farewell address, George Washington warned, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
But even there, the cracks in the system showed. Washington’s warning against the dangers of parties was, in truth, an argument for the supremacy of his chosen political party. Rather than the alternate domination of one faction over the other, he sought the sustained domination of his Federalist faction over all others. As historian Sean Wilentz has argued, it was a “highly partisan appeal delivered as an attack on partisanship and on the low demagogues who fomented it. Washington’s address never explicitly mentioned Jefferson or his supporters, but its unvarnished attack on organized political opposition was plainly directed against them.”
The framers’ mistaken belief that America’s political system would resist organized parties was consequential. Their vision of American government — a vision children are still taught in civics classes — was that it would be balanced by competition among branches. The president, the courts, and the Congress would compete for power and prestige. They would check each other naturally, as a byproduct of exerting and protecting their authority.
The reality of American government today is quite different. American politics is balanced by organized political parties competing across branches of government. The president is checked not by Congress, but by the opposition party in Congress. The courts remain more independent — Judge Robart, it’s worth noting, was appointed by President George W. Bush — but they are by no means untouched by partisan competition. Federal judges are selected through a political process driven by organized ideological groups that vet candidates with the goal of ensuring predictable, friendly rulings in the future.
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In normal times, this works well enough. These are not normal times. Congressional Republicans find themselves, or at least feel themselves, yoked to Donald Trump — an abnormal president who hijacked their primary system and mounted a hostile takeover of their party. Trump now holds them hostage: Their legislation requires his signature, their reelection requires his popularity, and he is willing to withhold both.
And so the institution meant to check the president now finds itself protecting him. As Frum perceptively writes:
A scandal involving the president could likewise wreck everything that Republican congressional leaders have waited years to accomplish. However deftly they manage everything else, they cannot prevent such a scandal. But there is one thing they can do: their utmost not to find out about it.
But an absence of incentive should not be confused with an absence of responsibility. Trump does not, himself, have the power to reinforce his rule with a web of corruption. Trump does not, himself, have the power to launch fraudulent investigations of nonexistent voter fraud and then use the results to disenfranchise voters. Trump does not, himself, have the power to confirm his Cabinet while refusing to put his assets into a blind trust. In these cases, and others, Trump’s power exists at the pleasure of Congress. He can only do what they let him do.
That Congress is not using its power is Congress’s fault, not Trump’s. Whatever danger Trump poses to the system is their fault as much or more than his — it is their job, after all, to check an out-of-control president.
To put it differently, Trump deserves a bit less attention, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz deserves a lot more.
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But Warren’s speech came to an abrupt and screeching halt when she was silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for attempting to read a letter penned in 1986 by Coretta Scott King, activist and wife of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to oppose Sessions’ appointment to a federal judgeship.
In her letter, King wrote, “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prohibited Warren from reading the letter on the grounds that it “impugned the motives and conduct” of Sen. Sessions.
Though King’s letter had been written to be sent to Congress, it was never entered into the congressional record because Senator Strom Thurmond, one-time segregationist and then-chair-of-the-judiciary-committee, would not allow it.
In order to stop Warren, McConnell invoked rule XIX, which prohibits senators from “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”
Here is the text of the original letter:
Dear Senator Thurmond:
I write to express my sincere opposition to the confirmation of Jefferson B. Sessions as a federal district court judge for the Southern District of Alabama. My professional and personal roots in Alabama are deep and lasting. Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts.
Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.
I regret that a long-standing commitment prevents me from appearing in person to testify against this nominee. However, I have attached a copy of my statement opposing Mr. Sessions’ confirmation and I request that my statement as well as this letter be made a part of the hearing record.
I do sincerely urge you to oppose the confirmation of Mr. Sessions.
Coretta Scott King
POOL VIA GETTY IMAGES | President Donald Trump appears to take great joy in some aspects of the presidency but can also register great irritation at annoyances.
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was confused about the dollar: Was it a strong one that’s good for the economy? Or a weak one?
So he made a call ― except not to any of the business leaders Trump brought into his administration or even to an old friend from his days in real estate. Instead, he called his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, according to two sources familiar with Flynn’s accounts of the incident.
Flynn has a long record in counterintelligence but not in macroeconomics. And he told Trump he didn’t know, that it wasn’t his area of expertise, that, perhaps, Trump should ask an economist instead.
Trump was not thrilled with that response ― but that may have been a function of the time of day. Trump had placed the call at 3 a.m., according to one of Flynn’s retellings ― although neither the White House nor Flynn’s office responded to requests for confirmation about that detail.
For Americans who based their impression of Trump on the competent and decisive tycoon he portrayed on his “Apprentice” TV reality shows, the portrait from these and many other tidbits emerging from his administration may seem a shock: an impulsive, sometimes petty chief executive more concerned with the adulation of the nation than the details of his own policies ― and quick to assign blame when things do not go his way.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s volatile behavior has created an environment ripe for leaks from his executive agencies and even within his White House. And while leaks typically involve staffers sabotaging each other to improve their own standing or trying to scuttle policy ideas they find genuinely problematic, Trump’s 2-week-old administration has a third category: leaks from White House and agency officials alarmed by the president’s conduct.
“I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this,” said Eliot Cohen, a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush and a member of his National Security Council. “I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.”
I’ve been in this town for 26 years. I have never seen anything like this. I genuinely do not think this is a mentally healthy president.Eliot Cohen, former State Department official under George W. Bush
There is the matter of Trump’s briefing materials, for example. The commander in chief doesn’t like to read long memos, a White House aide who asked to remain unnamed told The Huffington Post. So preferably they must be no more than a single page. They must have bullet points but not more than nine per page.
Small things can provide him great joy or generate intense irritation. Trump told The New York Times that he’s fascinated with the phone system inside the White House. At the same time, he’s registered a complaint about the hand towels aboard Air Force One, the White House aide said, because they are not soft enough.
He’s been particularly obsessed with the performance of his aides on cable television. Past presidents typically didn’t make time to watch their press secretary’s daily briefings with reporters, but Trump appears to have made it part of his routine. “Saturday Night Live’s” weekly skewering of his administration is similarly on his must-watch list ― with his reaction ranging from unamused to seething.
Information about Trump’s personal interactions and the inner workings of his administration has come to HuffPost from individuals in executive agencies and in the White House itself. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.
While some of the leaks are based on opposition to his policies – the travel ban on all refugees and on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim nations, for instance – many appear motivated by a belief that Trump’s words, deeds and tweets pose a genuine threat.
When Trump tweeted about North Korea’s missile technology three weeks before he took office, for example, it scrambled then-President Barack Obama’s national security apparatus, which saw a risk in provoking an unstable young dictator who possessed nuclear weapons.
Richard Nephew, a State Department expert on Iran sanctions under Obama, said some of the leaks from the agencies are likely efforts to let the public know that their advice has not been followed, in the event something bad happens down the road. “This, I think, is about making it clear that these folks have tried to do the right thing and there is only so much they can do with a hostile administration,” Nephew said.
Perhaps along those lines, The Associated Press reported the details of a phone call Jan. 27 between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, noting that Trump said Mexico had “bad hombres” and that he might need to send U.S. troops to take care of things. (The White House later said Trump had been joking around.)The Washington Post detailed a Jan. 28 conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which Trump angrily denounced an agreement to resettle refugees held by Australia in the United States.
The New York Times, meanwhile, painted a portrait of a brooding commander in chief, wandering the White House alone in a bathrobe at night, watching too much cable television and venting his frustrations through angry tweets.
“I think it’s a cry for help,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a counterterrorism expert at the Treasury Department under Obama. She said many staffers still working in the national security agencies under Trump see what’s happening and are driven by a simple motive: “Incredulity, and the need to share it.”
There’s always leaks. Every president in history has said the press hates me, and there’s too many leaks.Ron Kaufman, former White House staffer under George H.W. Bush
The White House has denied many of these accounts, including the idea that Trump owns (let alone wears) a bathrobe. Others dispute the premise that Trump staffers undermining his competence is unusual. Ron Kaufman, who worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House in the late 1980s and early 1990s, argued that the Trump administration’s leaks are par for the course for a young administration. “There’s always leaks,” Kaufman said. “Every president in history has said the press hates me and there’s too many leaks.”
And Republican National Committee member Randy Evans, a veteran of Newt Gingrich’s leak-prone House speaker’s suite in the 1990s, said he doesn’t “get that sense” that Trump’s staffers are questioning his fitness for the job.
“Not yet, anyway,” Evans said. “We’re just too early in the process…. I think you see a lot of political jockeying going on and a lot of self-importance going on.”
The idea that Trump is temperamentally ill-suited for the presidency is nothing new. It was the main argument against him during both the GOP primaries a year ago and the general election last summer and fall. At times, Trump seemed to embrace the characterization, wearing it as a badge of honor for his status as an anti-establishment “outsider.”
But what were only hypothetical concerns on the campaign trail are now life-and-death decisions inside the White House – as evidenced by the death of a Navy commando in a botched raid in Yemen on Jan. 29. Trump approved that raid following a dinner meeting that included his top political adviser, former Breitbart News Chairman Stephen Bannon, whose permanent membership in the National Security Council was itself the basis of widespread leaks and warnings from the national security establishment.
“The intelligence community is desperately looking for a way to get some leverage in altering dangerous policies away from a catastrophic vector,” said Rick Wilson, a former Pentagon official familiar with intelligence issues who has become a vocal Trump critic.
Evans said at some point the White House will have to get serious about harmful leaks if they want to control their message, just as Gingrich’s office had to two decades ago. He described the method of intentionally releasing tidbits to various staffers to see what turned up in print. “If the administration gets serious about leaks, they’ll do the blue-dye test and find them,” Evans said.
But to Cohen, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, the problem is not the leakers. It’s the president. Because Trump has shown no true affection or respect for anyone outside his immediate family, Cohen said, he cannot expect that of his staff. “This is what happens when you have a narcissist as president.”
Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Angry at the civilian casualties incurred last month in the first commando raid authorized by President Trump, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the United States to run Special Operations ground missions against suspected terrorist groups in the country, according to American officials.
Grisly photographs of children apparently killed in the crossfire of a 50-minute firefight during the raid caused outrage in Yemen. A member of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, was also killed in the operation.
While the White House continues to insist that the attack was a “success” — a characterization it repeated on Tuesday — the suspension of commando operations is a setback for Mr. Trump, who has made it clear he plans to take a far more aggressive approach against Islamic militants.
It also calls into question whether the Pentagon will receive permission from the president for far more autonomy in selecting and executing its counterterrorism missions in Yemen, which it sought, unsuccessfully, from President Barack Obama in the last months of his term.
Mr. Obama deferred the decision to Mr. Trump, who appeared inclined to grant it: His approval of the Jan. 29 raid came over a dinner four nights earlier with his top national security aides, rather than in the kind of rigorous review in the Situation Room that became fairly routine under President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.
The raid, in which just about everything went wrong, was an early test of Mr. Trump’s national security decision-making — and his willingness to rely on the assurances of his military advisers. His aides say that even though the decision was made over a dinner, it had been fully vetted, and had the requisite legal approvals.
Mr. Trump will soon have to make a decision about the more general request by the Pentagon to allow more of such operations in Yemen without detailed, and often time-consuming, White House review. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will allow that, or how the series of mishaps that marked his first approval of such an operation may have altered his thinking about the human and political risks of similar operations.
The Pentagon has said that the main objective of the raid was to recover laptop computers, cellphones and other information that could help fill gaps in its understanding of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose leaders have tried to carry out at least three attacks on the United States. But it is unclear whether the information the commandos recovered will prove valuable.
The White House continued its defense of the raid on Tuesday, making no reference to the Yemeni reaction.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, denied reports that the purpose of the attack was to capture or kill any specific Qaeda leader. “The raid that was conducted in Yemen was an intelligence-gathering raid,” he said. “That’s what it was. It was highly successful. It achieved the purpose it was going to get, save the loss of life that we suffered and the injuries that occurred.”
Neither the White House nor the Yemenis have publicly announced the suspension. Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment, but other military and civilian officials confirmed that Yemen’s reaction had been strong.
It was unclear if Yemen’s decision to halt the ground attacks was also influenced by Mr. Trump’s inclusion of the country on his list of nations from which he wants to temporarily suspend all immigration, an executive order that is now being challenged in the federal courts.
According to American civilian and military officials, the Yemeni ban on operations does not extend to military drone attacks, and does not affect the handful of American military advisers who are providing intelligence support to the Yemenis and forces from the United Arab Emirates.
In 2014, Yemen’s government temporarily halted those drones from flying because of botched operations that also killed civilians. But later they quietly resumed, and in recent years they have been increasing in frequency, a sign of the fact that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups.
The raid stirred immediate outrage among Yemeni government officials, some of whom accused the Trump administration of not fully consulting with them before the mission. Within 24 hours of the assault on a cluster of houses in a tiny village in mountainous central Yemen, the country’s foreign minister, Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi, condemned the raid in a post on his official Twitter account as “extrajudicial killings.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera this week, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, said that President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi raised concerns about the raid in a meeting with the American ambassador to Yemen in Riyadh on Feb. 2.
“Yemen’s government is a key partner in the war against terrorism,” Mr. Mubarak said in the interview, adding that Yemen’s cooperation should not come “at the expense of the Yemeni citizens and the country’s sovereignty.”
The Pentagon has acknowledged that the raid killed several civilians, including children, and is investigating. The dead include, by the account of relatives, the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda leader who was killed in a targeted drone strike in 2011.
In a sign of the contentiousness that public disclosures of the raid have caused, Pentagon officials on Tuesday provided lawmakers on Capitol Hill with a classified briefing on the mission. One participant in that meeting said military officials told them “they got what they wanted,” without offering details. But Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said afterward that the raid was a failure.
American counterterrorism officials have expressed growing fears about their lack of understanding of Qaeda operations in Yemen since the United States was forced to withdraw the last 125 Special Operations advisers from the country in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted the government of President Hadi, the Americans’ main counterterrorism partner.
The Pentagon has tried to start rebuilding its counterterrorism operations in Yemen since then. Last May, American Special Operations forces helped Yemeni and Emirati troops evict Qaeda fighters from the port city of Al Mukalla.
Al Qaeda had used Al Mukalla as a base as the militants stormed through southern Yemen, capitalizing on the power vacuum caused by the country’s 14-month civil war and seizing territory, weapons and money.
The deadly raid last month, launched from an amphibious assault ship off the Yemeni coast, was the first known American-led ground mission in Yemen since December 2014, when members of SEAL Team 6 stormed a village in southern Yemen in an effort to free an American photojournalist held hostage by Al Qaeda. But the raid ended with the kidnappers killing the journalist and a South African held with him.
The United States conducted 38 drone strikes in Yemen last year, up from 23 in 2014, and has already carried out five strikes so far this year, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
In response to the raid, Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen urged followers last weekend to attack the United States and its allies in the country.
Qasim al-Raymi, the leader of the Qaeda offshoot, likened his fighters to extremists battling American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a speech translated by SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist activities and messaging.
Specialists in Yemeni culture and politics have cautioned that Al Qaeda would seize on the raid to whip up anti-American feelings and attract more followers.
“The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report released last Thursday, “plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-U.S. sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits.”
David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt
Getty Images (Chip Somodevilla)
You know how white supremacists have been calling Trump their “God-Emperor?” Apparently, that has gone to The Donald’s head, as his DOJ lawyers actually argued that he is completely untouchable by any court and his decisions are absolute.
On Tuesday, August Flentje, Special Counsel to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, was asked a question that should have been an automatic “no” — Does the President have unchecked power?
Flentje hesitated briefly, then provided a single-word answer that reveals everything you need to know about the mindset of Trump and his team of white supremacists, Christofascists, and other Deplorables: “Yes.”
Judge Friedland presses DOJ, are you arguing Pres Trump’s power here is unrevieable by courts?
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) February 7, 2017
Naturally, Americans are not happy about this:
As with GW Bush, Trump’s expansive claims of unreviewable executive power will likely lead courts to impose new limits on the President
— Adam Winkler (@adamwinkler) February 7, 2017
Senators must ask Gorsuch if he agrees with the Trump DOJ that the EO travel ban is “unreviewable” by federal courts.
— Amy Fried (@ASFried) February 5, 2017
Q: Are you arguing Pres Trump’s power here is unreviewable by courts?
A: Yes. pic.twitter.com/L4RHXa8YxB
— Joe (@activistmode) February 7, 2017
The “real risk” question. DOJ Special Counsel basically asserts president’s decision is unreviewable #9thCircuit
— (((Trump Trash))) 📎 (@Trumpster_Fire) February 7, 2017
— ELMURO (@EL_MURO_QUE_RIE) February 5, 2017
he Trump administration’s position seems to be that a minority of voters elected — with the help of a Russian dictator’s hackers and propagandists and a rogue FBI agent — a dictator rather than a President. While campaigning, Trump called himself the “law and order” candidate. Apparently, he thinks he is above both.
You can listen below: