Trump: Corruption and Autocracy

Isaias Afwerki (right), the rebel-leader-turned-president who has ruled Eritrea as a totalitarian dictatorship since the 1990s.

Doug Mudar‘s latest post on his blog, The Weekly Sift, is titled “Accelerating Corruption and Autocracy.” It is the best summary and analysis of Trump’s malfeasance that I’ve found. And, as usual, Mudar’s work is painstakingly researched and his prose carefully and conscientiously crafted. Here are his introductory paragraphs,

Ever since he came down the escalator pledging to protect us from Mexican rapists, Donald Trump has shown corrupt and autocratic tendencies. Before long, he was leading chants about locking up his political opponentswelcoming Russian help in his campaignencouraging his supporters to be violentprofiting off of campaign events, and saying that he would only accept the election results “if I win“.

Since taking office, he has funneled public money into his private businesses, continued building his wall without a Congressional appropriationrefused all demands for financial transparency and Congressional oversightobstructed the Mueller investigation, assembled the most corrupt cabinet since Nixonlied many times per day, and repeatedly expressed his envy of dictatorial regimes like North Korea and China.

But the authoritarian drift has definitely accelerated in the three weeks since every Senate Republican but Mitt Romney voted to let Donald Trump remain in office, despite proven abuses of power. As Atlantic’s Adam Serwer puts it, Trump’s acquittal marked “the end of the Trump administration, and the first day of the would-be Trump Regime.” Think about what we’ve seen since the Senate’s abdication of its constitutional role in controlling would-be autocrats.

1) A purge of “disloyal” officials. “The disloyalty here is not to the United States, but to the person of Donald Trump.” Examples include Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, his twin brother, Ambassador Bill Taylor, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, and Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates.

Moreover, everyone in the FBI who had any connection to the original Russia investigation was purged long ago: James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Bruce Ohr, and Lisa Page, as well as the Justice Department leadership that refused Trump’s pressure to shut the investigation down: Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein. The purges will likely continue throughout the administration.

2) Interference in the Stone trial.  Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn are the last loose ends in the obstruction of the Mueller investigation. Trump and Barr interfered with “the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation (causing all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case rather than participate in political corruption of the processes of justice), attacked the judge, and attacked a juror.” Note that “Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump, and he threatened a witness who could expose that lie. A jury of his peers unanimously found that Stone’s guilt had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” The message to anyone who might testify against him is keep quiet and you’ll be taken care of.

3) Pardons for money. Trump’s pardons include Rod Blagojevich whose guilt is beyond doubt, “tax evader Paul Pogue, whose family has contributed over $200K to the Trump Victory Fund” and “criminal financier Michael Milken was pardoned after a request from billionaire Nelson Peltz, a Milken business associate who had just hosted a Trump fundraiser that netted the campaign $10 million.”

4) Pardons to maintain a corrupt network. Jeffrey Toobin explained the authoritarian nature of his other pardons:

Authoritarianism is usually associated with a punitive spirit—a leader who prosecutes and incarcerates his enemies. But there is another side to this leadership style. Authoritarians also dispense largesse, but they do it by their own whims, rather than pursuant to any system or legal rule. The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source. …

In this era of mass incarceration, many people deserve pardons and commutations, but this is not the way to go about it. All Trump has done is to prove that he can reward his friends and his friends’ friends.

Naturally, “all the beneficiaries of Trump’s mercy were convicted of the kinds of white-collar crimes Trump’s people might commit themselves.” That was exactly the point as Sarah Chayes explained in “This Is How Kleptocracies Work

In return for this torrent of cash and favors and subservience, those at the top of kleptocratic networks owe something precious downwards. They owe their subordinates impunity from legal repercussions. That is the other half of the bargain, without which the whole system collapses.

That’s why moves like Trump’s have to be advertised. … Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that—indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running. The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.

5) Threats to the rule of law. The Justice Department under Bill Barr is no longer an independent agency but one dedicated to shielding Trump from the rule of law. Marcy Wheeler provides a great summary of the corruption. Here are a few highlights

  • The Stormy Daniels hush-money investigation sent Michael Cohen to prison, but all the follow-up evaporated after Barr took over at DoJ. Cohen claimed he worked under Trump’s instructions, and that the Trump Organization reimbursed his illegal campaign contribution. But those leads have been dropped.
  • SDNY seems to be slow-walking its investigation into Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine shenanigans, now that a new US attorney has been appointed. The head of the neighboring Eastern District of New York has been put in charge of Ukraine-related investigations that SDNY had been pursuing.
  • A new US attorney in D.C. has led to a “review” of investigations there, including cases involving Michael Flynn and Erik Prince.
  • Barr assigned Connecticut US attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Trump/Russia investigation. Anyone tempted to investigate further Trump wrongdoing now knows that they risk becoming targets themselves.
  • Barr tried to stop the Ukraine whistleblower’s account from reaching Congress, and did not recuse himself even though he is mentioned in the complaint.

6) Tightening control of the intelligence services. When a February 13 briefing to House leaders of both parties “reported that Russia was repeating its 2016 interference in the 2020 election process, again for the purpose of electing Trump,” well, Trump wasn’t going to accept the intelligence. In response “He dismissed Maguire and replaced him with Richard Grenell, who has no intelligence background whatsoever. In a Washington Post column, retired Admiral William McRaven lamented Maguire’s fate: ‘in this administration, good men and women don’t last long’.” Or, as quoted by the WaPo a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center states:

Nothing in Grenell’s background suggests that he has the skill set or the experience to be an effective leader of the intelligence community. … His chief attribute seems to be that President Trump views him as unfailingly loyal.

As Mudar puts it: “As Ambassador to Germany … Grenell was noted for his identification with right-wing parties like Alternative for Germany. The German news magazine Der Spiegel … interviewed more than 30 sources including “numerous American and German diplomats, cabinet members, lawmakers, high-ranking officials, lobbyists and think tank experts.” Their conclusion?

Almost all of these sources paint an unflattering portrait of the ambassador, one remarkably similar to Donald Trump, the man who sent him to Berlin. A majority of them describe Grenell as a vain, narcissistic person who dishes out aggressively, but can barely handle criticism. … They also say Grenell knows little about Germany and Europe, that he ignores most of the dossiers his colleagues at the embassy write for him, and that his knowledge of the subject matter is superficial.

Furthermore, “Grenell used to work for a corrupt Moldavian oligarch, but didn’t register as a foreign agent.” This by itself should prevent you from getting a security clearance.

7) Summing up. Now you might think well, shouldn’t the President be in charge? Shouldn’t his subordinates follow his orders? No! “One problem — you might fairly say it was THE problem — the Founders were trying to solve when they wrote the Constitution was how to control executive power. Unfettered executive power quickly becomes dictatorship, and the rights of the People are then only as safe as the Dictator allows them to be.” That was the whole idea of separate but equal branches of government.

Since the founding of our country

executive power has also been controlled through the professionalization of the various departments, each of which balances political control by the President with its own inherent mission. So the Justice Department takes its policy from the President, but pursues the departmental mission of justice. The intelligence services try to find truth, the EPA protects the environment, the CDC defends public health, the military safeguards our country and its allies, the Federal Reserve balances economic growth against the threat of inflation, and so on. For the most part, presidents have known when to keep their hands off.

Until Trump … There is no truth other than the story Trump wants to tell. There is no mission other than what Trump wants done.

Students of authoritarianism have been warning us about his dangerous tendencies since he first began campaigning. But, as Rachel Maddow noted Friday night, we are well past the time for warnings. “The dark days are not ‘coming’,” she said. “The dark days are here.”

Brief Reflection

I wish that my many warnings weren’t apparently coming true. It’s possible that the Democrats will win the Presidency, Senate, and House. Maybe they will clean up corruption and start to play hardball like the Republicans have been doing to prevent the slide toward autocracy. But this will inevitably lead to even more violent civil war, as Republicans have made it clear that only naked power now matters. And once civil discourse is impotent it’s hard to see how things won’t become increasingly violent. I still fervently hope that I’m wrong. But if not I’d encourage my readers, if they have the means and opportunity, to consider leaving the country. (For more see “Best Countries to Live In“)

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2 thoughts on “Trump: Corruption and Autocracy

  1. “It’s possible that the Democrats will win the Presidency, Senate, and House”

    Which is why our primaries are crucial, as well as the general election. Don’t even look at the ballots: vote Democrat on all issues and for all candidates– as if if were life and death.

    Because it might well be. This is an emergency, squabbling about the minutiae of issues and the ideological purity of Democratic candidates can re-elect Tsar Trump.

    This ties in with Brennan’s notions of hyper-democracy; though he might not have used such a designation. If this year we drown ourselves in agonizing about issues and candidates, we bring it upon ourselves. I have a guilty conscience concerning this matter, as I voted 3rd party in ’16: presidential candidate Jill Stein of the Green Party.

    Bad thinking, bad move, bad outcome. I did not think Trump would win the election, and thought that if he did win, he would moderate his views and his inflammatory rhetoric. Bad thinking.

    Voting 3rd Party turned out to be a vote for Trump. Bad move.

    Voting for Trump was (and will be in November of 2020) a vote for him to erode America in stages. Bad outcome.

    How convenient it would be for Trump to be a Vozd, and get rid of BOTHERSOME individuals who get in his way.

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