Trump's vindictive political purging puts America's democracy at risk
Every year, the non-partisan, D.C.-based organization Freedom House issues a report scoring every country in the world along two dimensions of human liberty. Its scorching 2018 report, called "Democracy in Crisis," singles out America for "an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties." The United States no longer features the freest combined score of 1 on the group's benchmark political and civil rights index. While the U.S. is not yet anywhere close to what I like to call a "Seagram's State" (countries that get the worst possible score of 7 and 7 on the political and civil rights indices, like North Korea), it is very much trending in the wrong direction.
Friday evening's bizarre firing of former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe by Attorney General Jeff Sessions is yet another reason to believe that Freedom House is right: The U.S. is at dire risk of democratic backsliding. After McCabe, a career FBI official just hours away from retirement, was humiliatingly sacked by Sessions in a way that seemed intentionally designed to deny him his pension benefits, President Trump took to Twitter to continue his unprecedented and childish public smear campaign against any individual inside the federal bureaucracy who dares to defy him.
"Andrew McCabe FIRED," America's febrile president tweeted shortly before midnight. "He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!" That outburst kicked off a weekend-long Twitter bender for the president, who peppered his usual stream-of-consciousness logorrhea with a refrigerator magnet set of phrases like "No collusion," "Fake news media," "Witch Hunt," and the old standby: "Crooked H."
McCabe immediately fired back with a combative public statement accusing the president and his allies of conducting "an unrelenting assault" on his reputation and public service, and saying that he was fired because of "the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey." McCabe will almost certainly sue, he has memos, and he will almost certainly win, given the president's insane, months-long blitz of tweets and public statements impugning McCabe's integrity. The president is a walking, talking legal liability against himself and everyone who makes the suicidal decision to serve him.
The whole McCabe affair was a puzzling combination of the way that this White House loves to bury bad news in the weekend news cycle's shallow grave and the president's inability to keep his hatch latched about the justice he's obstructing at any given moment. And of course, the administration could simply have allowed McCabe to walk away without setting the Beltway on fire with another politically motivated attack on a career civil servant. The Trump administration also seems to take very seriously the advice from the beloved 1999 comedy Office Space about when to terminate employees. "We find it's always best to fire people on a Friday," notes a genial management consultant. "Studies have statistically shown that there's less chance of an incident if you do it at the end of the week."
Well, the firing of McCabe caused an incident anyway, of the sort that has become depressingly routine over the past year: The president conducts a long and very public campaign of character assassination against a public official, and then finally gets him or her fired or investigated. McCabe now joins the Trump administration's global diaspora of villains, a group of sacked servants that now includes James Comey, Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and Rex Tillerson, and to which the president would obviously love to add his National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, as well as the attorney general himself, a man Trump has repeatedly lit into on Twitter and apparently calls "Mr. Magoo."
Why is all of this a problem? Andrew McCabe will be fine, right? He'll write a book. Like Comey, who is pretending to be some kind of resistance hero despite helping throw the 2016 presidential election to the very man who is bent on cannibalizing the independence of the FBI and destroying the country's relatively recent history of bipartisan oversight of the executive branch, McCabe is unlikely to suffer personal calamity from this episode. And for all we know, he's guilty of exactly what he's being charged with.
As Lawfare's Benjamin Wittes notes, we don't actually know what the full brief against McCabe is, because the report hasn't been released yet. It is possible he committed very serious breaches of bureau protocol and that he deserved to be dismissed. His pink-slipping is putatively based on an inappropriate interview that McCabe gave to reporters about the Clinton email probe. Yet the vindictive nature of the dismissal, and the president's wildly inappropriate role in the imbroglio, are strong indicators that something is amiss here. The relentless attacks on Sessions, the suspicious firing of Comey, and the president's frequent and theatrical broadsides against the Mueller investigation all suggest that Trump is at least considering some kind of preemptive move against the special counsel himself.
In a broader sense, President Trump's behavior here looks and feels uncomfortably like the kind of purge that authoritarian leaders use to clear the field of potential rivals, critics, and whistleblowers. You don't need to frog-march your adversaries off to their deaths to abuse the power of the executive branch, intimidate would-be informers, drive honest civil servants out of the government, and silence anyone who might challenge the lawless practices of the president. You destroy the livelihoods and careers of your critics. You turn dissidents into enemies of the people. You use your media access and public trust to smear them. The threat to your rule disappears with them, because few will want to challenge such ruthless power after seeing the consequences.
In the words of Freedom House, President Trump has "deviated from established norms of ethics and transparency, verbally attacked crucial democratic institutions such as the news media and the judiciary, and made inflammatory and often inaccurate statements on a wide range of issues." He has nothing but contempt for the law, and believes that the FBI and Justice Department should be loyal to him and him alone rather than to the United States. One by one, he's ensuring that anyone who stands between him and total control of the federal law enforcement arms is eliminated. He's not there yet, but judging from the tepid response from congressional Republicans and the conservative intelligentsia to Friday's events, there is little standing in his way other than Mueller and the midterms.