We Are in the Midst of a Trickle-Down Constitutional Crisis

If you are like me, over the past year you’ve found that each Trump outrage has been pre-empted by the next. The assault on our democratic systems has been continuous and unrelenting. Given our 24-hour news cycle, there has been precious little time to step back and consider the big picture. But yesterday, a series of events made it impossible to ignore the fact that our democratic institutions might be buckling. It is time to put all of this in perspective. Below are the various ways that Trump and his enablers have attacked our democracy.

They launched an outright assault on our justice system

The president of the United States has continually attacked our justice system. Back in October, he actually accused the FBI of colluding with Russia. Following a terror attack in New York, he called our justice system “a joke” and “a laughing stock.” These assaults have been amplified by right wing media, which has regularly called for a “war on the FBI” based on ridiculous conspiracy theories.

Yesterday we learned that, under the leadership of Rep. Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee is currently investigating the Department of Justice and the FBI. Although the Republicans on the committee have been investigating these bodies for a while, they didn’t bother to inform the Democrats, thus violating the committee’s rules. The chairman claims that they should have known because he talked about it on Fox News. Apparently this was the real “secret society.”

Politico reported in December a small group of GOP members on the committee had been meeting secretly to investigate the Justice Department and FBI’s handling of the dossier and hoped to release a detailed report of their findings in early 2018.

We thus have members of the president’s party conducting a secret investigation of the agency that is overseeing an active investigation of the president.

They expect loyalty from DOJ and purge those who don’t comply

A few days after his inauguration, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey for loyalty, then asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. When it continued, the president fired Comey and stated on national television that it was because of the Russia investigation.

The ousting of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe fits the same pattern. After Comey was fired and McCabe became acting director, Trump asked him who he voted for. Not getting the answer he wanted, the president launched an all-out attack on McCabe, followed by pressure from AG Sessions to have FBI Director Christopher Wray fire him. In addition to McCabe’s apparent lack of loyalty to Trump, here is something that might have been at the root of his ouster:

I doubt the president will be able to stop any of these people from testifying, but in Trump’s mind they are still loyal to Comey, and so must go.

Trump tried to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June and was only stopped because his White House counsel threatened to resign rather than comply. As we learned yesterday, the long knives have now come out for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

All of this demonstrates Donald Trump’s twisted views on the role of DOJ, particularly the FBI. One incident made this crystal clear:

President Donald Trump was reportedly shouting to wake the dead when Attorney General Jeff Sessions chose to recuse himself from the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with the Kremlin—and invoked the dead to hammer his point home.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump asked numerous senior White House officials in March, according to the New York Times, as he criticized Sessions as insufficiently devoted in comparison to Trump’s former personal lawyer and confidant.

In Trump’s mind, the people who work at the DOJ are there to serve his needs. If they fail to adequately do so, they must be purged.

They ignore national security threats in order to protect the president

There is no doubt that Russia launched a major effort to influence the 2016 election and, according to Trump’s own CIA director, they will attempt to do so again in the 2018 midterms. Yet this administration has not taken a single step to address the issue and the president has even gone back and forth about whether it even happened in the first place. In other words, this administration is choosing to ignore a major national security threat because to address it could create problems for the president personally.

Yesterday, the Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a memo crafted by Rep. Devin Nunes that contains references to classified information. It is reported to be a direct attack on the FBI and its handling of the Russia investigation. The vote happened after FBI Director Christopher Wray saw the memo and asked the committee to wait for him to brief them about his concerns prior to voting. They ignored his request.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee wanted to hear from the FBI before making a decision. But knowing the likely outcome, they wrote a document to counter the Republican’s efforts to discredit the FBI. In a blatant attempt to mislead the press and the American people, yesterday the Republicans on the committee voted against releasing the Democrat’s memo.

It is important to note that both documents contain classified information, and so a process to release them to the public is required.

Under House rules, the Intelligence Committee can vote to disclose classified information. The president then has five days to block such action.

Trump can block the release of the Republican memo for national security reasons, release it before the deadline, or simply do nothing, in which case it will be made public in five days. It is pretty clear that we’ll be seeing the memo shortly, which is exactly what Russia’s army of twitter-bots wanted to happen.

Taken all together, we see that Trump and his Republican defenders have been launching an all-out attack on our democratic institutions, and, as Carl Bernstein noted, yesterday they began to show signs of breaking down. There might still be a moment in our future that is analogous to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. But waiting for an explosive moment that may never come distracts us from the fact that our democracy is under attack right now.

Since Republicans seem partial to the phrase “trickle-down,” I’d call what we’re experiencing a “trickle-down constitutional crisis” in a blatant attempt to discredit and/or stop the Mueller investigation. From everything we’ve seen so far, the GOP seems content to either sit on the sidelines or proactively make their own contributions to undermine our democracy.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.