Media pundit Fareed Zakaria sees US democracy in danger – and things are probably even worse than he says

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by Hans Dembowski

Trump’s FBI scandal has international repercussions

Fareed Zakaria is one of the leading media pundits in the USA. He worries about the future of democracy in the USA and warns that institutional failure there will have serious implications around the world. He is right, but my worry is that the US democracy is in even greater danger than Zakaria indicates.

Yesterday, the Washington Post broke the latest scandal of President Donald Trump disclosing intelligence secrets to the Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The story has been confirmed by other papers, including the Republican-friendly Wall Street Journal.

Last week, the media’s focus was still on Trump’s earlier scandals, and in a column for the Washington Post, Zakaria stated several things, of which I find the following the most important:

It appears that the Republican Party is losing any resemblance to a traditional Western political party, instead simply turning into something more commonly found in the developing world: a platform to support the ego, appetites and interests of one man and his family.

Zakaria’s point is that, in the US system of checks and balances, legislators in Congress are the people who can ensure that the president sticks to the explicit constitutional rules as well as to conventional standards of democratic rule. So far, the Republicans in Congress are blatantly failing to do so.

Zakraira made his case in the context of Trump’s firing of James Comey, who, as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was in charge of investigations of possible links of Trump’s election campaign to Russia. In strictly formal terms, the US president is in a position to sack the head of the FBI. However, it amounts to obstruction of justice if he does so in order to stop an investigation that affects him personally. 

Republicans in Congress have rallied around Trump in this affair. At first, they accepted the White House’s early argument that Comey had to go because of how he had handled Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the presidential campaign. This was ironic. Trump himself had earlier praised Comey for declaring in public that he was reopening the investigations because of Clinton’s emails shortly before the election. There is reason to believe that this event tipped the election in Trump’s favour, and Democrats have therefore been very critical of Comey for months. Republicans, however, were not.

In March, however, Comey made public that the FBI was also investigating the Trump campaign last year – and that investigation is still going on. Apparently, Comey had asked for more resources for it shortly before he was sacked. Circumstances thus suggest that Trump’s true motivation was not how Comey had handled Clinton’s case but rather how he was handling Trump’s case.

Democrats pointed this out immediately, but Republicans kept insisting that Comey had to go because of breaching FBI standards during the election campaign to Clinton’s detriment. It is somewhat embarrassing to them, that Trump himself later declared in a TV interview that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey. It turned out, moreover, that Trump had talked with Comey about the investigation several times.

It is a principle of democracy that no one is above the law. Another principle is that people affected in an investigation must not try to influence that investigation, especially if they hold an office that would enable them to do so.

Republicans were furious last summer, when Bill Clinton, former president and Hillary Clinton’s husband, privately met Lorretta Lynch, then US attorney general, in spite of the ongoing e-mail investigation. They argued Clinton probably tried to sway Lynch. The attorney general is the cabinet member the FBI reports to. Today, the same Republicans find it okay that Trump, whose campaign is being investigated, was not only personally in touch with Comey and had dinner with him, but even fired him. This kind of double standard is frightening. Even after Trump admitted that he had Russia on his mind, they still are insisting that presidents can fire FBI directors.  

The FBI reports to the attorney general, but it is an institution with a strong sense of independence. The point is that it serves the law, not the administration. In his column, Zakaria correctly points out that Trump’s action is undermining the FBI’s independence, and goes on to argue:

The nonpartisan agencies of the executive branch are jewels of the modern U.S. system. They were not always impartial, and they are certainly not perfect, but in recent decades they have acquired a deserved reputation. When I travel from Eastern Europe to China to Latin America, democratic reformers tell me that they look to these agencies as models when trying to strengthen the rule of law in their own countries.

Zakaria is not a rabid critic of Trump, by the way, but actually argued that the bomb strikes on Syria in April had truly made Trump president. In his latest column, however, Zakaria correctly argues that Trump’s disregard for democratic norms is indeed a serious problem. Nonetheless, he expresses optimism:  

There are only two forces left that can place some constraints on Trump — the courts and the media — and he has relentlessly attacked both. Every time a court has ruled against one of his executive orders, the president has ridiculed the decision or demeaned the judges involved. To their enormous credit, the courts have not been deterred from standing up to the president. That leaves the media. Trump has gone at them (us) like no president before, smearing news organizations, attacking individual journalists and threatening to strip legal protections guaranteed to a free press. We will survive, but we must recognize the stakes.

I think matters are worse than he suggests. For one thing, the Republicans will do what they can to change the composition of the judiciary. They will appoint judges that suit them. It has generally been said that the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, who is known to be a staunch conservative, to the Supreme Court was Trump’s one big success in his first 100 days in office.

It has not been noted much that Republicans actually changed the system to achieve that. Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president, but need to be confirmed by the Senate. In the past, 60 votes were required, but the Republicans abolished that rule, and confirmed him with a mere 52 votes. Gorsuch is the first Supreme Court to have only been approved by senators from one party. The court has thus become more partisan. On the one hand, this fact reduces the court’s legitimacy as an independent institution, but on the other hand, it gives the Republicans free reign if, as seems likely, a Supreme Court justice dies or resigns before 2019. 

The frightening truth is that Republicans have become a populist force in the European sense, which has been spelled out brilliantly by Jan-Werner Müller, a German professor who teaches at Princeton University, in his book: “What is populism”. According to him, a common trait of populists is that they pretend to represent the real people (which they feel free to define as suits them) and deny the legitimacy of all other political forces. This is an accurate description not only of Trump, but of his party. And yes, Zakaria is right: this attitude is typical of authoritarian rulers in Asia, Africa and Latin America too.

Once populists come to power, they do what they can to change the system in ways that allow them to stay in power. Changing rules concerning the appointment of Supreme Court justices fits the picture, and it won’t be the last thing Republicans try. Trump announced last week that he is setting up a commission to study voter fraud. The USA does not have a serious problem in this regard, but the Republicans have a history of making voting harder for poor people, students or members of minorities by enforcing rules that are supposed to prevent voter fraud.

As for free media, Trump has indicated several times that he wants to reform libel laws in order to be able to take journalists to court if he finds their coverage offensive. The truth is that he finds all criticism of himself offensive. And it turns out that Tom Price, his health secretary, feels threatened by reporters who insist on getting answers to their questions. Dan Heyman, a reporter for the Public News Service, was arrested, handcuffed and charged with “wilful disruption of governmental processes” in West Virginia because he followed Price in a hallway of the state capitol and kept yelling the questions about health care Price did not want to answer.

Heyman may be sentenced to six months in prison, basically for doing what American news media expect their journalists to do.

The press is obviously still much freer in the USA than in Turkey, for instance, where another populist president is trying to ensure that he’ll stay in office for as long as he pleases. All the links in this blogpost lead to US-based websites, apart from the one that leads to a short D+C-article of mine on Turkey.  

As a German journalist I am aware of my country’s history of Nazi and Communist dictatorship. I have spent part of my childhood in the USA, and I must say that what Trump is doing now is profoundly un-American. And that does not apply only to passing on secrets to Russia.

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