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the presidency

Worries Mount That an Autocratic Trump Threatens Our Democracy

Donald Trump was confident that the booming economy for which he takes credit will bring him re-election in November. Then Covid-19 struck. Not only is the economy so suddenly devastated by lockdown, with the unemployed percentage

nearing that of the 1930s Great Depression, but he is undergoing severe criticism for his slow response and blame for the added deaths resulting.

He is pressing to "open" the country, held back only by his medical experts, with the risk that the pandemic could rage on,. Guidelines for a phased restoration have been announced. He seems to think enough economic health can be restored by November for voters to reward him a second term. But should that hope dim, there is increasing worry about what he might do to stay in office.

He has long expressed admiration of authoritarian heads of other governments able to run their countries free of constraints: Russia's Putin, China's Xi, Egypt's Sisi,

Turkey's Erdogan, Saudi Arabia's Salman, the Philippines' Duterte. He looks about the world and sees other leaders granting themselves extra powers to deal with the pandemic. Israel's prime minister shut down the courts and is using cellphone surveillance to track infected citizens, casting aside privacy concerns. Hungary's parliament has just given Prime Minister Viktor Orban plenary power to rule by decree. Will these powers ever be relinquished?

Mr. Trump betrays his desire to reform the American presidency in the mold of other countries. Instead, he here runs up against state governors such as New York's Andrew Cuomo. He exhibits growing autocratic behavior, thuggishly slandering Inslee of Washington, Whitmer of Michigan, Cuomo. He expects governors to show their "appreciation" for what he is doing for them as if the president of the 50 states and his administration are under no obligations to do so. He favors governors who praise him (as they know they must or be denied covid supplies) and penalizes those who don't show sufficient respect. “The governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency", he warns. Regardless of a state's plight and removed from the illness and death the governors are dealing with, he tells Vice President Pence, "If they don't treat you right, don't call" them. In his conception of the presidency, it is for him to command, and the states to be brought to heel. He tweeted on April 13th:

That same day, he was asked by a reporter about regional consortia of states that have banded together "to cooperate and decide when to re-open, undermining what you're trying to do...". Trump interrupted with:

"No, not at all. Let me just say, very simply...The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful. The president of the United States calls the shots...It's a decision of the president of the United States. Now that being said, we're going to work with the states...They can't do anything without the approval of the president of the United States."

Asked about that authority, what "if a governor issues a stay at home order..."

"You say my authority? The president's authority. Not my, because it's not me. When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that's the way it's gotta be.

Reporter: "The authority is total?"
Trump: "Total, it's total."

Faced with bipartisan objection, he backtracked. “The governors are responsible", Trump said, “They have to take charge.” His guidelines will now "allow" states to stay closed. His minders may have persuaded him that putting the onus on the states will give him cover if things don't go well. But he immediately began issuing tweets: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” and then, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and then, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA".

removing congress

His authoritarian beliefs were vented in full force in mid-April when he threatened to adjourn Congress in order to make recess appointments to posts he claims need to be filled because of the virus. "The senate should either fulfill its duty and vote on my nominees or it should formally adjourn so that I can make recess appointments", was his directive.

His belief in total authority says he thinks laws can be swept aside. (He has said, "I can do anything I want as president of the United States"). His responses to court decisions say he has little regard for the judicial branch, and now it is Congress' turn to absent itself.

The Constitution gives the president the right to adjourn Congress but only in the peculiar instance of the two bodies — the House and Senate — being unable to agree with each other when to adjourn. The president can step in as referee. Neither chamber is today in disagreement, but that seems for Trump only a technicality to be brushed aside so that he can adjourn the legislature at his will.

Is he also ignorant of the Supreme Court's decision when it ruled against Obama's attempt to make recess appointments? The former president had acted on the specific provision in the Constitution that empowers him "to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate" when he filled three seats of the National Labor Relations Board that had been kept unoccupied for over a year. The Court ruled "Recess" meant only the annual interregnum at the turn of the year between formal Senate sessions, not the many long disappearances from Washington by our hundred senators throughout the year.

Or, in the full knowledge of the Court's decision, does Trump plan nevertheless to do as he pleases, if not now, at some point throwing down a challenge to the Supreme Court with the assurance of how can the court and what army stop him?

Recall that Trump said "I can do anything…" the same day that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's feeble performance before Congress put an end to his report. The president went ahead to do that "anything" the very next day when he called Ukraine President Zelenskyy with his "perfect" extortion of favors for money. Trump would then revel again when the Senate failed to convict following the House impeachment. What does it say that every last Republican save Mitt Romney had been made so fearful of Trump's wrath, of his threats to campaign against their re-election, that all the rest voted against his removal from office? How can we continue to call this a democracy if a strongman in the White House can so easily take control? Of course, thanks to the Electoral College, — its tilt that accords extra weight to less populous states and the general practice of a state awarding all its delegates to the winner, wiping out all votes for the loser — an argument can be made that ours never was a true democracy. Trump stands to benefit from that distortion once again.

the trump show

Trump's narcissism is is boundless. It's fair to say that it is on display to a degree that none of us ever thought imaginable in a human. In the latest manifestation, he has turned his daily briefing, originally for pandemic reports, into a podium for political gain. He is freely using broadcast and cable for his re-election. In one session Trump ran a several-minute campaign video and the channels, taken by surprise, let it run. As this is written, he is carrying on not about the pandemic but something about Virginia and the 2nd Amendment. He tweets about his ratings, marveling that they're the equal of the finale of the television show "The Bachelor".

The latest celebration of self is that his grandiose signature will appear in the memo field of the $1,200 checks being send to individuals as part of the emergency relief package. There is no precedent for this act of megalomania. Trump wants Americans to think that he is personally giving them the money and not we taxpayers.

Mr. Trump claims he had no part in that. To believe it would require a lobotomy. His reflexive habit of lying (The Washington Post has kept score for years) has led to the psychological conjecture that he must believe his lies. They are re-workings of reality to feed narcissism's demands. It is this sincere belief on his part — if the analysis is correct — that makes for an emerging threat as election approaches. It says that no matter reality, Trump will have persuaded himself that he has done a "tremendous" job, a "fantastic" job, that anything contrary such as an election that goes against him will have been "fixed". We will hear him lay that groundwork — saying everything is fixed — as November 3rd approaches.

the 200 day countdown

The crippling pandemic has given rise to conjecture about the upcoming election. Will it be disrupted? Will the administration seek to postpone it, thus keeping Trump in power? Will Republicans in Congress remain silent for even that maneuver? If the election goes forward and Trump loses, will he cite the ravages of SARS-CoV-2 as grounds to invoke emergency powers and refuse to leave office?

the alternative government

If these questions sound alarmist, as historian Jon Meacham said in the The New York Times, then you haven't "paid even glancing attention to the president's will to power and contempt for constitutional convention". Take note of the president saying above, "The president of the United States has the authority to do what the president has the authority to do, which is very powerful". Actually, what the president can do under the Constitution is very limited. He is commander in chief of the military, to be sure, but otherwise there's little specifically authorized beyond treaties with other nations and making appointments, and even they need Senate approval. It is as good as certain that Trump's "very powerful" refers coyly to a body of secret documents underpinning emergency declarations available to him under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act, provisions he knows about and is hinting that we don't.

These are draft executive orders, proclamations, and proposals to Congress that lie dormant and are secret to the extent that none of them have ever even been leaked to the public nor have they even been presented to Congress. They are called Presidential Emergency Action Documents, or PEADs. First devised at the outset of the Cold War as powers for the president to invoke should a nuclear exchange cripple government, they are designed "to implement extraordinary presidential authority in response to extraordinary situations". Nothing could be more extraordinary than a virus having shattered the nation's economy.

There are believed to be 50 to 60 such documents; their constant review and revision begun under Obama in 2012 continues in the Trump administration. All that is known of their contents is from references to them that have emerged between the cracks, as in Freedom of Information requests of FBI memorandums. Gleanings from such sources reveal that PEADs call for chilling measures to be taken on proclamation of emergency — suspension of the Constitution, martial law, curfews, suspension of habeas corpus, voiding of Americans’ passports, more.

Does invocation of these powers seem unlikely? You should know that Bill Barr's Justice Department has already quietly asked Congress for the authorization for judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies. Justice proposed that the chief judge of any district court could pause court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation”. This would apply to:

“[A]ny statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings”

How does this not amount to suspension of habeas corpus, the right we otherwise have requiring authorities to present to a judge or court valid reasons for our detention?

We are on a knife edge with this president and his lust to hold onto power, faced with the alarming realization that there exists below the surface a parallel government, an authoritarian blueprint that could burst into being, ready-made for this president to dispense with democracy and its laws. One could say that there is indeed a "deep state", and it belongs to Donald Trump.

5 Comments for “Worries Mount That an Autocratic Trump Threatens Our Democracy”

  1. James T Power, M.D.

    Kudos! Onward thru the fog ~~

  2. James T Power, M.D.

    Under the Heading ‘Removing Congress’, the article states,

    “What does it say that every last Republican had been made so fearful of Trump’s wrath, of his threats to campaign against their re-election, that not a single one voted for his removal from office?”

    The fact that a lone Republican Senator, Mitt Romney (R-UT), voted to remove Mr Trump should not have been omitted and should never be forgotten.

    • The Editors

      We somehow had gotten it into our heads that Romney had voted for witnesses testifying at the impeachment trial but, when that failed, he had voted for acquittal. We were wrong. Thanks to the good doctor for correcting that; we fixed the article.

      • James T Power, M.D.

        Dear editors:

        I appreciate your efforts to correct the mistake. However, I think you meant to say:

        “What does it say that every last Republican save Mitt Romney had been made so fearful of Trump’s wrath, of his threats to campaign against their re-election, that all the rest voted against (not ‘for’) his removal from office?”

        Thanks for your ongoing attempts to get it right.

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