Events unfolding around the country are the previews for coming attractions, and it won’t be fun. To look at what is happening in Portland Oregon one might see a trial run for more such activity — currently announced for, or underway in, Kansas City, Chicago and Albuquerque.
Going forward, remember that this is all right from the autocracy 101 hand book. I will explain my thinking in this piece, but two major things are happening. One is that Mr. Donald J. Trump is trying to get video to support his campaign claim that the cities are out of control and that “only I can fix it.” Second, and far more ominously, he is laying the ground work for declaring martial law leading into the election. Mr. Trump and his campaign know that he cannot win solely through the support of his base. He needs to keep people from voting for his opponent — voter suppression — and one way to do that is to intimidate the electorate and to make it too hard to vote. It is an election strategy that comes at the expense of American cities and their citizens. It threatens the very foundation of our democracy.
As a reminder, federal law enforcement units in full combat gear have been on the streets in Portland for about ten days. Theoretically, they are there to protect the federal court house from protesters. In fact, they have been patrolling the streets of the city picking up people that look like they might be willing to foment trouble. Let’s dive into this further.
The federal government has a duty and a right to protect federal property from destruction. In cases such as the court house in Portland, this would normally entail coordinating with the local city and state authorities for a cohesive plan and would amount to a defensive — rather than offensive — effort to keep trouble makers away. None of this is happening. There is no apparent coordination with local authorities — indeed the mayor and governor have explicitly asked those forces to leave — and they are definitely using offensive tactics with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and other agents against the crowd. To be sure, there are trouble makers in the ranks of the protesters. However, the vast majority are peaceful. Additionally, with proper techniques and coordination, peaceful protesters are likely to cooperate in identifying the bad apples in the crowd as it is in the best interests of the other protesters to keep it peaceful and to not provoke an over reaction by law enforcement. By all credible accounts, after weeks of protests, the demonstrations in Portland had settled into a peaceful occasion and were slowly dwindling in size. That is until the federal authorities arrived and began using their storm trooper tactics. In military combat gear, the federal authorities wear no name tags or unit identification badges, only a small generic “police” tag on their camos. Reportedly, they are from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One might ask who is guarding our borders from the supposed hoards coming across from Mexico if they are in Portland? One might also ask what training these particular agencies give to their agents regarding community policing?
If you think it is an exaggeration, look at this video of a Navy veteran trying to talk to some of the agents and getting beaten and pepper sprayed while not even raising his arms or making any threatening movements.
All of this on its own is bad. Very bad. But it portends worse things to come. Remember Mr. Trump’s words earlier this week.
“I’m going to do something, that I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. Look at what’s going on — all run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”
So, first of all, only Democrat mayors are “bad.” Secondly, there are currently no violent demonstrations in Philadelphia, Detroit or Baltimore or other cities he is going to “dominate.” This is pure, unabashed partisan politics using federal law enforcement agencies for his personal gain.
Additionally, the hypocrisy is all too familiar. The rationale behind the Portland deployment is to protect against citizens expressing their First Amendment rights on federal property. In 2018 Mr. Trump gave full pardons to two Oregonians — father and son — that set fire in 2016 to 139 acres of federal land during Red Flag Warning conditions, endangering firefighters working on another fire nearby. It resulted in a 40 day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by protesters supporting their cause. He considered these men to be patriots. Peaceful protesters in cities are considered to be criminals.
As I have written in this space before, I was very involved in figuring out Saddam Hussein’s next moves during Gulf War I. We figured out after awhile that he pretty much always announced what he intended to do. He couldn’t always carry it out, but he was pretty straightforward in his pronouncements. Mr. Trump is the same way. He announces exactly what he plans to do.
Here is the diabolical back drop to his strategy. In my 8 May piece “American Carnage” I wondered aloud about how Mr. Trump could have so badly botched the national response to the pandemic and opined that perhaps it was deliberate. I am now sure of it. He did not create the pandemic, but he is going to use it to his advantage. Similarly, he will use the Black Lives Matter movement to declare that they are terrorists working to destroy America. He already barely hides his racism in this regard. Yesterday in a speech he blamed Mexico (again) and the BLM protests for the spread of the Coronavirus in the South and Southwest. He repeatedly declares that if the Democrats win the election, they will “destroy the suburbs,” a not-so-subtle racist canard.
Many pundits and political experts, as well as average citizens, have wondered for weeks and months why Mr. Trump refuses to put forward a national effort to halt the pandemic and to address racial injustice. It dawned on me yesterday that as former Maryland Lt. Governor and National Republican Chairman Michael Steele explained on TV yesterday — this is his plan. In other words, he will use the chaos currently engulfing our country to his advantage. He will trot out again his beliefs that the the Constitution gives him “absolute power” and that “I alone can fix it.” These will form the basis for action on his part to interfere in an election that he is already claiming — nearly daily — is rigged. He is against mail-in ballots (even though he, his family, many of his aides and many service members vote by mail) and has installed a long-time ally as Postmaster General. Mail bags mysteriously disappearing? Mail trucks mysteriously bursting into flames? The imagination can run wild.
The point is that we will not succumb to an outright coup on his part. It will be gradual with incremental decisions and policies that set the stage for him to declare the election invalid and that he must stay on to save the country. He is on record multiple times, most recently in his Fox News interview with Mike Wallace, that he will not accept the outcome of the election if he thinks it’s rigged. Asked directly if he would accept the results he said,
“I have to see. Look — I have to see. No, I’m not just going to say yes. I’m not going to say no.”
Since many of the states will use mail-in ballots, it could be days or weeks before the official results are in. If the election is close as the polls close on Election Night, and the results change dramatically against Mr. Trump when the absentee, provisional and other ballots are counted, he could well declare the entire election a fraud and cancel it. He is on record with the 2018 Florida election — which was very close and looked as if it would go against his preferred candidates — as saying that only ballots counted on Election Day should be valid. He tweeted without offering a single piece of evidence,
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible — ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night.”
Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis both won their races.
We already know that Mr. Trump will do anything that benefits him. There is no ethical, moral or legal bottom for him. He now has an Attorney General that acts as his personal attorney and shares Mr. Trump’s belief in an Imperial Presidency.
The U.S. military put Mr. Trump on notice after they were used in a political stunt at Lafayette Square in Washington D.C. for his bible thumping campaign photo op that they would not be used for political purposes. Thus, Mr. Trump went to his flunkies in DHS (the top position and most of the sub-agencies are headed by “acting” leaders that do not have Senate approval) in order to create his own personal police force to pursue his personal goals.
Some may think that this is a “Chicken Little” scenario. Alarmist. Couldn’t happen here. That’s not America. Stop hyperventilating. No way. I hope that you are correct. Personally, I am watching out for our “Reichstag Fire” moment.
Several events last week disturbed me to my core as I realized the depths that Mr. Donald J. Trump and his administration will go to protect him from the rule of law and any sort of accountability. One of the prominent warning signals came in the form of Attorney General William Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In case you missed the live broadcast of his appearance, I will point out that it was not just what he said in response to questions but also how he said it. He was clearly annoyed that any Senator would question his decisions or his power as the head of law enforcement in the United States. Perhaps more chilling was his unadulterated and unabashed pro-Trump posture. He is no longer the Attorney General of the United States, or even the attorney charged with protecting the presidency as an institution. He clearly and forcefully defended Mr. Trump, the man, and not the president, the office.
Among many startling elements of A.G. Barr’s comments regarding the Mueller Report are what I see as the three most egregious points:
- The most troubling and news worthy defense of Mr. Trump by A.G. Barr was his insistence that the president is above the law. You read that correctly. In response to a question on obstruction of justice — and the fact that if Mr. Trump was successful in carrying out the obstruction, then that could be the reason that no conspiracy to work with the Russians was proved — Mr. Barr stated that under the Constitution the president has the authority to oversee investigations (including those involving the president) and therefore has the authority to shut them down. Thus, there can be no obstruction even if the president stops an investigation into himself because it is within his power. He further argued that this is especially true if the president thought the investigation “was not well founded” or “groundless.” The president has the ability to declare it so. “The president does not have to sit there, constitutionally, and allow it to run its course.” And there you have it. All the president has to do is say that there is no reason to investigate him and then no one can investigate him. (I assume a “hoax” is “not well founded.”) The Attorney General believes the president is above the law. (For info, Article I for the proposed impeachment of Richard Nixon was obstruction of justice.)
- The second most troubling aspect of A.G. Barr’s testimony is that he waffled mightily in response to a question as to whether the president or any one else at the White House asked him to investigate others. The context was a section of the Mueller Report that indicated Mr. Trump pressured the Department of Justice (DOJ) to re-open an investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton and others of Mr. Trump’s political opponents after the election. He finally answered “I don’t know.” Right. (As Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) pointed out, that’s not something one might forget.) It used to be a bipartisan agreement that a president using his office to investigate a political opponent on purely political grounds was an abuse of power (Article II of those brought against Mr. Nixon).
- The third most troubling comment was the confirmation by A.G. Barr that Special Counsel Mueller objected to the characterization of his report put forward by Mr. Barr on 24 March. In his statement summarizing the results of the Report he claimed that Mr. Mueller found no criminal evidence of conspiracy or obstruction. When the report was finally released, we found that was not true. Mr. Mueller wrote to Mr. Barr three days after his March summary to object to the characterization of his work. “The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.” Some Senators think that Mr. Barr lied in his previous testimony when he said that he had not heard any objections from Mr. Mueller when in fact he had already received and read the letter.
There were more, but then you can read it for yourself.
Let’s put a few more developments from recent days out there to paint a picture. Consider the following:
- In an on-air discussion with Sean Hannity of Fox News Mr. Trump said of the Mueller Investigation, “This was a coup. This was an attempted overthrow of the United States government.” Incredibly — although I don’t know why I continue to be surprised — Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Minority Leader, used the same word in response to a reporter’s question.
- The Trump Administration asserted that it will fight or ignore any House subpoena. They are also going to court to stop subpoenas of other entities where Congress is seeking information about the president and possible financial ties to other governments or foreign entities. “We’re fighting all the subpoenas.” (Contempt of Congress — refusing subpoenas — was Article III of those against Mr. Nixon.)
- Mr. Trump still does not acknowledge Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the Mueller Report there were 251 contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian-connected operatives including 37 meetings in person or via Skype. At least thirty-three campaign officials and advisers held the meetings or were aware of such meetings. Recall that the Mueller Report concluded that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
On Friday, Mr. Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin held a nearly ninety minute phone call. Mr. Trump did not confront Mr. Putin about the attacks. President Obama may have been asleep at the switch and not done all that he could as his administration learned the breadth and depth of Russian intrusion, but he did talk directly to Mr. Putin to warn him against further meddling. He also imposed sanctions against Russia (which are the ones that presidential adviser Michael Flynn got into trouble over for calling the Russian Ambassador and saying that Mr. Trump would lift them). President Obama also expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US and shut down two of their facilities in the US. Yet in his ninety minute conversation with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump did not even bring up the Russian actions except to say that he and Mr. Putin did not collude and Mr. Putin should know because he was the one who was supposed to have done it. They then agreed that it was a hoax. You can’t make this stuff up.
So what does all of this mean?
When taken in their totality it means that we have a president with no boundaries, no oversight, and no sense of what is right. Mr. Trump still has not been held accountable for any of his outrageous actions and must surely think that the preponderance of evidence indicates that he never will be. Most certainly not by the Republicans in the Senate and not by the Attorney General. In fact, should someone, somehow initiate proceedings against the president, we already know that his A.G. says he can shut it down because, well, just because he can if he wants to.
It is also clear that Mr. Trump will not take Executive Action to stop Russian interference in the 2020 election. Although various agencies are working to shore up our defenses, there is no national level coordination and planning under way to prevent further meddling. Indeed, Mr. Trump and others in his administration implied that he would take their help again in 2020.(Russia if you’re listening…)
I think that the evidence above also indicates the Mr. Trump believes that the purpose of the federal government is to do his bidding and therefore he will not hesitate to use the full power and strength of the U.S. government to take down his political opponents. Apparently he will do so with the willing acquiescence of the A.G. and Republicans in the House and Senate.
Talk of coups really scares me. Do the president and the leader of the Republican Party in the House really think that the Mueller Investigation was an attempted coup? Stop and think about that for a moment. Anyone that threatens this president’s sense of well-being is a direct threat to him. Really? A coup? If they actually believe that then there is nothing he will stop at to prevent losing his power. And who will stop him? The House is being ignored (A.G. Barr won’t even show up to testify about the Mueller Report and his role in its release). No oversight there. The Senate trembles in its boots that one of their Republican colleagues will be the subject of a nasty Tweet. No oversight there. The Attorney General is now the personal defense attorney for Mr. Trump. No oversight there. The fix is in.
How far will he go? Declare martial law for some other self-created crisis? Nullify a close election he loses? Suspend the election because he Tweets out that the Democrats are attempting a coup? I am not sure what he is capable of doing.
Do I sound like a wing nut conspiracy dealer with too much time on his hands? I hope so.
And yet, the things I’ve mentioned above happened in only a matter of days. In other administrations, Republican or Democrat, there would be a major reaction to such a clear threat to our norms and national well-being. Sadly, most people just dismiss it as business as usual.
One theory floating around is that Mr. Trump and his advisers and supporters in Congress are pushing the Democrats in the House as hard as they can so that they are left with little recourse except for impeachment. Improbably, the Republicans think that an impeachment proceeding against Mr. Trump will help his approval ratings and “guarantee” his re-election in 2020. To them there is no down side as they know that the Senate would never convict him of the Articles of Impeachment. If that is the plan, how much further will the administration overflow the banks of good government to create a flood of institutional indignities to force the issue?
I worry that we are in the midst of the creeping destruction of our Republic. It is taking place in slow motion and in public so that most people who are rightly concerned with the day-to-day effort of just going to work, to school and of trying to keep food on the table don’t see it. Like everything associated with this president, it is hiding in plain sight.