Following his Impeachment Trial, Mr. Donald J. Trump became predictably vengeful and embarked on a revenge tour. He is now systematically using the power of the presidency to invoke his personal wrath on anyone that did not faithfully and fully support him — personally — rather than doing their duty and supporting their oath to the Constitution. The purge will only end when the Trump regime is fully stocked with Trump loyalists, regardless of their ability to handle the job, personal background, or knowledge of anything related to the job. For the most part, expect it to be the “B Team” — or maybe more like “F Troop.”
Mr. Trump is taking another page out of the Autocracy 101 text book. We should not be surprised.
Recently, I was referred to an article in the New York Review of Books by Masha Gessen. Titled Autocracy: Rules for Survival it provides six rules based on living much of her life in autocracies and becoming an expert on Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Ms. Gessen is much better at explaining herself than I could ever be — it is worth the time to read the original — and her November 2016 article is stunningly prescient in predicting Mr. Trump’s behavior in the years following his election.
In brief, these are the six rules.
- Believe the autocrat. They always tell you exactly what they are going to do. Mr. Trump exhibits this behavior. What some consider to be exaggeration, hyperbole or “Trump being Trump” is actually him telling you what he is going to do. Or at least what he wants to do if he can figure out a way to get away with it. I first observed this trait in Gulf War I where I was involved in a group tasked with the formulation of a policy and a strategy to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and to restore a semblance of order in the Gulf region. With study, it became obvious that he was telling the world exactly what he intended to do — or what he would try to do — but you had to peel away the bombastic language to fully understand what he was saying.
- Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. When things seem out of control, the smallest sense of normality tends to soothe people’s concerns. We all need reassurances. When things are at their worst, anything that makes it seem as if the situation is temporary and that it will all be okay in the end is a salve that may hide the wound rather than heal it. What is happening today in our country is not normal. No one-off State of the Union speech or any other glimmer of normal presidential behavior should mask the fact that 99% of the time our president is out of control.
- Institutions will not save you. American values are based on ideas like a free press, an independent judiciary, Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch and leaders within the government protecting the Constitution for all Americans. It takes about two seconds to recall that Mr. Trump fires anyone that stands up to him, constantly debases members of the media, attacks judges that do not do want he wants, and always succeeds in getting the formerly Republican members of Congress to acquiesce to his every whim. Mr. Trump and his regime took a steam roller to the established norms of government and continue to test the limits of the law in every corner of government. There are no longer any safety barriers keeping the regime within safe boundaries.
- Be outraged. While many of us may no longer be surprised by statements and actions from Mr. Trump, one needs to continue to be shocked. Do not normalize bad behavior especially when it threatens the fabric of our democracy. Be prepared for ridicule when continuing to call out such awful behavior while others continue with their mantra that it is just Trump being Trump. As he himself calls it when belittling those that critique him, be prepared for accusations of suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. Be prepared for unpleasant attacks from his most ardent supporters. Do not back off.
- Don’t make compromises. So many former Republicans, especially in the Senate, predicted that Mr. Trump as president would be the worst thing that ever happened to our country. After three years of his presidency they are now his most loyal and fervent supporters. Their support is not necessarily a re-evaluation of his competency or ability or vision, but rather it is a compromise of their own values in order to retain power. Mr. Trump is no different than the person they ardently decried during the campaign. Those around him have changed.
- Remember the future. Mr. Trump, his regime, and Trumpism cannot last forever. Look to reform our institutions in order to restore the foundations of our democracy. Put into law what we as a country previously took to be accepted norms of behavior that our leaders would honor. Work to project a new vision for our country that is inclusive and that addresses the problems that Mr. Trump was able to cynically manipulate for his own purposes. Stay in the game.
In the every day course of our own lives it is possible to lose sight of the big picture attack on our democracy. It’s hard. Frankly, it’s exhausting. It is easy to lose oneself in areas outside of politics because it is just so relentlessly Trump. Every gosh darn day there is some new Tweet or speech or rally that saps all of the energy from one’s soul when it is clear that he has no idea what he is talking about. Nearly 17,000 documented and provable lies during his presidency numbs the soul and becomes normalized.
And that is the plan.
Autocracy thrives on indifference or exhaustion or just turning it over to the regime and letting them take care of it all as long as my day-to-day life is not impacted. Mr. Trump and his regime are interested only in themselves and in the amassing of personal power. Period. Anything else is a sales pitch presented in the moment to get a cheer or to attack an opponent or to appear to care. Remember that fundamentally, they don’t care about you or me or the rule of law. Only themselves.
It is up to us as citizens to stay vigilant and to call out the fouls when we see them.
“I believe that the president has learned from this case. The president has been impeached — that’s a pretty big lesson.” — Senator Susan Collins (Tr-Maine)
Multiple Senators opined in a similar way that Mr. Trump learned his lesson as to the seriousness of his actions concerning Ukraine and that he would be more reserved and conventional in his approach to governing in the future.
When asked by a reporter about Senator Collins’ statement, specifically, what lessons he’s learned from the impeachment, Mr. Trump responded:
“That the Democrats are crooked. They’ve got a lot of crooked things going. That they’re vicious. That they shouldn’t have brought impeachment. And that my poll numbers are ten points higher.”
It has only been a little over a week since the Impeachment Trial of Donald John Trump concluded. In that time, Mr. Trump embarked on a crusade of retribution and increasingly threatening behavior. The list is too long — in just nine days mind you — to enumerate here but it started with the National Prayer Breakfast, continued in a rambling and profane State of Mind speech in the White House, and is clearly enumerated in his omnipresent Tweet storms. It is, in a word, frightening.
Of greatest concern to our Republic is his stated intent to meddle in the Justice system of the United States of America. Our legal system depends on the ability of our prosecutors, judges and juries to attempt to be as impartial as possible. As with Joe Friday in the old “Drag Net” series, “just the facts, Ma’am.” Just as important is the public’s perception that the system is unbiased and faithful to the law. Mr. Trump is attempting to undercut both elements that are so important to our rule of law.
We got a preview of coming attractions a few weeks ago when the DOJ initially asked for a relatively long prison sentence (seven months) for confessed felon Mr. Michael Flynn. That was later withdrawn and a recommendation for probation was substituted after the original career prosecutors were over-ruled by senior political appointee DOJ officials.
In case you missed it, Mr. Trump’s long time friend and confidant — and proud self proclaimed political dirty trickster — Mr. Roger Stone was convicted on seven felony counts including lying to Congress and witness tampering. His is the last case to come from the Mueller Investigation which resulted in multiple defendants going to jail on convictions or admissions of guilt.
Mr. Stone is due to be sentenced next week. This week the four career prosecutors from the Department of Justice (DOJ) used the existing formula under current law to recommend a sentence for Mr. Stone. Prosecutors recommend a sentence, based on the guidelines, and then judges hand down the sentence based on those same guidelines coupled with any mitigating or aggravating circumstances and other factors that may have come out during the trial or that are presented by the defense attorneys in order to humanize the guidelines.
The DOJ prosecutors recommended in a brief presented to the court that Mr. Stone serve seven to nine years in jail. That night, the president tweeted at two A.M. that “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Later that day, under the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the court papers were withdrawn and a lighter sentence was put forward by DOJ. Mr. Trump later publicly questioned whether there was “prosecutorial misconduct” in the case under the original prosecutors.
The four original career prosecutors resigned in protest. Three resigned from the case and one from the case and from DOJ.
It gets worse. As it always does with Mr. Trump.
The president then went after the presiding judge in the case on Twitter. He went after Judge Amy Berman Jackson a judge in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. She is a highly respected member of the judiciary known for her fairness and lack of tolerance for shenanigans in the court room. Oh by the way, she also was the judge in other prosecutions brought forward by Mr. Mueller including Mr. Paul Manafort and Mr. Richard Gates. It was the sentencing of Mr. Manafort that particularly incensed the president, which he brought up in his latest attack on Judge Jackson.
It gets worse, as it always does.
The president then went after the forewoman of the jury that convicted Mr. Stone. On Twitter, of course, he said of the forewoman, “Now it looks like the fore person in the jury, in the Roger Stone case, had significant bias. Add that to everything else, and this is not looking good for the “Justice” Department.” He then referenced “Fox and Friends” on Fox News. Of course he did. And of course he puts “justice” in quotations.
It gets worse, again.
Yesterday AG Barr, in what appeared to me to be a “CYA” (an old term — known in modern circles as damage control mode), held an interview with ABC News where he opined that the president’s Tweets were making it “impossible” for him to do his job. To me, it looked like the AG was trying to tell Mr. Trump that he was taking care of the president and following up on his desired use of the Justice Department for his own purposes, but that the Tweets were giving away the ball game. Basically, to me, he was saying to the president, “Cool it. We’ve got your back but we can’t do it if you brag about it. Just stop it.”
But no matter. The president just — Could. Not. Let. It. Be.
Today the president says that he has “the legal right” to interfere in cases brought by the Justice Department. Let that sink in for a minute.
Not only is he claiming that he can interfere in the prosecution proceedings against his friends and allies, but that he can direct the prosecution of his perceived enemies or those that he claims are disloyal to him. Not to the Constitution, to him. Personally.
That’s some scary stuff.
In case you don’t quite get it, note that Mr. Trump is pushing the Department of Defense to have the Army take disciplinary action against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for his reporting, through the chain of command, his uneasiness with Mr. Trump’s now infamous call with the Ukrainian president. He testified to Congress under a subpoena — following orders and his oath to the Constitution. Said Mr. Trump of Colonel Vindman, “He is over with the military.” This from a man that pardoned three military war criminals.
The bottom line is this. The President of the United States clearly thinks that he is squarely in charge of the country. Not as a leader, but as an autocrat. Whatever he wants, he gets. Whatever he tells people to do, they must do it or be subject to retribution or worse, criminal prosecution. Not legal orders, mind you. Rather, anything he wants, regardless of legality or morality.
Sadly, though profoundly disturbed, I am not shocked by Mr. Trump’s behavior. I am, however, dumbfounded that with only one exception, the former Republicans in Congress have formed a cabal that has gone over lock, stock and barrel to aiding and abetting his outrageous behavior. Indeed, they cheer and applaud his every inane and threatening statement. Literally. Take a look at video of his public appearances the day after the Impeachment Trial. You know, the “trial” where the Trumpists refused to allow any evidence or testimony.
Mr. Trump during his campaign famously said that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue in New York City and get away with it. Sadly, that may have been a prophecy rather than an apocryphal statement. Clearly he has come to believe that not only can he get away with that, but apparently he now believes that he has the right to do that if it is in the “national interest” — meaning in his interest.
Can you imagine what will happen if he wins a second term?