An open letter signed by more than 600 past Justice Department staff members (including many U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys) from administrations of both parties going back to the Reagan administration begins:
We, the undersigned, are proud alumni of the United States Department of Justice. We served this institution out of a commitment to the founding American principles that our democratic republic depends upon the rule of law, that the law must be applied equally, and that no one is above the law. Many of us served with Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein. Those of us who served with these men know them to be dedicated public servants committed to these principles.
The letter then insists that neither be fired without cause: “Any attempt to corrupt or undermine the even-handed application of the rule of law threatens the foundation of our Republic. … It is up to the rest of us, and especially our elected representatives, to come to their defense and oppose any attempt by the President or others to improperly interfere in the Department’s work, including by firing either Mr. Mueller, Mr. Rosenstein or other Department leadership or officials for the purpose of interfering in their investigations.” If President Trump does do this, they ask Congress “to swiftly and forcefully respond to protect the founding principles of our Republic and the rule of law.”
This is an unprecedented, hugely impressive undertaking that continues to grow. (New names get added twice a day.) The nonpartisan effort based solely on the commitment to the rule of law should emphasize several key points in the effort to shore up democratic norms.
First, many preventative actions to protect against Trump’s subversion of the Constitution can and should be taken outside of government, relying on the very institutions, organizations and activities that characterize democracies — a free press, professional and civic organizations, peaceful public protests, civil litigation, etc. It is for this very reason that when democratic normalcy is disrupted, the tendencies to normalize abnormal conduct (threatening to fire Justice Department officials to protect oneself), to become despondent or to ignore politics must be resisted. Trump’s bombast and his never-ending stream of lies have a strategic purpose — to exhaust and demoralize the opposition.
Second, as important as all these activities are, nothing quite takes the place of elections. Every voter should press House and Senate candidates: Why don’t you support measures to protect Rosenstein and Mueller? Would firing either be an impeachable offense? Why aren’t you publicly rebuking the president? Given his conduct, do you think Trump is fit for office? Americans can send an unmistakable message to Trump and to surviving Republicans by voting out a slew of Republicans. One or both houses freed from GOP control can give real power to oversight committees, which must get the facts and make decisions as to how to hold Trump and his cohorts accountable.
Third, Republicans bear responsibility for supporting Trump and lifting him to the presidency but also for refusing to impose any restrictions on him from the get-go. No hearings on emoluments were held. No resolutions were voted on after Charlottesville or after smears on the FBI. Unserious and irresponsible committee members were allowed to run amok. The Senate rubber-stamped Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees, putting in place ethically challenged people; the Senate confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, after a series of misstatements to the Judiciary Committee regarding his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. Each omission taken separately is of limited importance. Collectively however, these missed opportunities embolden Trump and acclimatize the public to anti-democratic, outrageous conduct.
Attacks on the apolitical civil service and interference with the criminal-justice system are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes. When law enforcement, prosecutors and courts are attacked, they must be defended before these institutions are permanently damaged and lose their independence. A bipartisan white paper, “The Republic at Risk,” published this year urged:
Being able to identify the causes and symptoms of modern democratic decay is a good first step toward stopping those who seek to undermine our institutions and values. The end of democracy in America is not by any means inevitable. But democracy is only as strong as those willing to fight for it, and it cannot long endure in a political vacuum. Now, then, is the moment for Americans who have never been engaged in politics before to become engaged, and for those who have been involved to increase their involvement. At the end of the day, the final check on an authoritarian president comes from our democratic system itself, and the citizens who fill their role as active participants in governance.
The signatories to the open letter exemplify this type of active citizenship required in the Trump era.